WOMEN who experience domestic violence should be provided with support decades after the abuse ends, as new research shows the legacy on their health could last a lifetime.
Deputy director of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health Professor Deborah Loxton and her colleagues have published a paper showing the physical and mental health of women who experienced domestic violence was “consistently worse” after 16 years than those who had not experienced abuse.
“I think there is the implicit assumption that once the violence ends there’s a recovery period – and there is some recovery and women feel better and do better,” Professor Loxton said.
“However the idea that they can recover to the point where they are the same in terms of physical and mental health as women who have never experienced abuse seems to be more difficult to achieve in the longer term.
“Our data shows a physical and mental health deficit 16 years on between women who have ever lived with a violent partner and those who have never lived with a violent partner. We were very surprised that it lasted as long as it did – it was so stark and so distinct.
“There was no upturn at any point, it stayed consistently less across time and as women aged. This suggests we need to look at what’s going on when they leave, but also in the long term. We need policies and interventions in place to provide support for women who are still feeling the impact 10 or 20 years later.”
Professor Loxton said while it was generally understood that domestic violence could lead to depression and anxiety, there was not as wide an understanding of association with a higher prevalence of chronic pain and headaches, cervical cancer, chronic disease and problems with physical function.
She said research showed young women who experienced violence had an increased risk of having human papillomavirus or HPV, while middle aged women had an increased risk of cervical cancer. Further research showed women with violent partners were less likely to have pap smears over time.
She said while some other physical health problems were related to assaults, “there is now also increased understanding of the effect on chronic stress on the body and physical wellbeing,”.
While women have access to doctors and women’s health and support services, she said, many would not think about disclosing or want to discuss past violence. “It’s vital for clinicians and healthcare workers to understand that these women’s health issues are real and that they are long lasting.”
Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia: 1800 424 017