How Gender-Based Violence Impacts Mental Health

By Keetha Mercer, Program Manager, Community Initiatives
Canadian Women’s Foundation
December 5, 2017

There is no question: Violence affects mental health. In fact, the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada have both recognized gender-based violence as a significant public health issue.

From trouble sleeping, anxiety, and depression, to substance use to help with coping, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many other concerns, the effects are wide ranging, varied, and completely individual.

The link between violence and mental health concerns is found to be much higher for women: Studies have shown that women with histories of physical violence have significantly higher incidences of major depression, and that 50% of women who have experienced violence also have had a mental health diagnosis. The risk of developing depression, PTSD, substance use issues, or becoming suicidal was  three to five times higher for women who had experienced violence. Shelters and transition houses have reported that over half of women suffer from major depression and over 33% suffer from PTSD. The Ontario Canadian Mental Health Association found a significant connection between experiences of sexual violence and suicide attempts, a correlation that is twice as strong for women. And women already experiencing mental health issues are vulnerable to violence, as those with mental or behavioural disabilities are four times more likely to experience it.

Gender-based violence is prevalent in Canada, with half of all women having experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. On any given night, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters across the country to escape violence.  In a 2014 Statistics Canada survey, 553,000 women self-reported experiencing a sexual assault in that year alone. Most Canadians know at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse and, given recent social media campaigns like #MeToo and the fact that many sexual assaults go unreported or are considered “unfounded”, chances are we each know far more than one.

As 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence continues, we want to better draw the connection between gender-based violence and mental health. We want to also highlight the importance of using gender-informed approaches to support women who have experienced violence and mental health concerns.

Not properly addressing the connection between mental health and violence means that women are often misdiagnosed or unable to access the supports they need and want to heal. Also, women who have experienced violence and have been given diagnoses related to their mental health can be labelled as “difficult to work with” and refused services. Many services require clients to be sober in order to access their supports, something which is especially difficult for people using substances to cope with their experiences. And when women are prescribed medications for their mental health needs, the side effects can sometimes compound trauma – for example, anti-anxiety medications may impair some women’s ability to assess their safety.

The stigma associated both with gender-based violence and mental health concerns can stop women from sharing their experiences, from reporting the incidents, and from accessing support. Many women say the fear of not being believed by their friends, family, or authorities keeps them from disclosing their experiences. And losing custody of their children is another concern that may keep women from disclosing their experiences. We know that women who experience mental health concerns are even less likely to report that they have experienced violence, as their mental health is often used to discredit their experiences or to blame them for what happened. When combined with other reasons that some women are more vulnerable to violence, such as living in poverty, immigration status, and discrimination due to age, race, and sexual orientation, the barriers to accessing supports are real.

So, what needs to be done?

Critical supports need to be strengthened for women experiencing mental health concerns, both to prevent and address violence. This includes access to long-term counselling, affordable housing, childcare supports, better legal assistance, and employment opportunities. With the announcement of a Canadian strategy to address and prevent gender-based violence this year, now is the time to connect with your elected officials and let them know that you care about this issue and want them to ensure policies are implemented across all ministries.

On an individual level, we can inform ourselves of the ways that both violence and mental health concerns affect the people close to us. Being there as a non-judgmental support, listening, and offering to help find resources are all good ways to break the stigma and the isolation that women experiencing violence often feel. Challenge ideas, jokes, and “locker room talk” that justify violence or that shame people who are dealing with mental health issues. Support organizations addressing gender-based violence and mental health in your community.

During these 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, let’s make an effort to be aware of gender-based violence and its ripple effect on mental health, and to be supportive of those experiencing both.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, you can find more information about how to find supports in the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s tip sheets (see under Violence Prevention Resources). For a list of regional crisis lines and shelters by province, go to www.sheltersafe.ca.  If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.