Intimate partner violence (IPV) is abuse or domestic violence by a romantic partner and current or former partners. Tackling intimate partner violence could lower the rates of mental illness. This is according to a new commission published by Lancet Psychiatry, taking a look at the interrelationship between IPV and mental health problems. The report was compiled by a team of experts, including South African Professor Soraya Seedat. They suggest that reducing levels of IPV experienced by women and children could significantly bring down the number of people who experience mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

IPV and mental health
Violence against women and girls

According to the report, IPV is a public mental health issue that requires societal change, scientific effort and political will to tackle it effectively. A key finding in the report is that more than one in four women and girls aged 15 or older (27%) has experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence. In addition, it found that victims of IPV are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems.

The report suggests that societal norms that promote violence need to be addressed. In men, this can be seen as the endorsement of sexist, superior or sexually hostile attitudes. In women, it is the tolerance of violence against them. Challenging these beliefs can be an effective means of ensuring they do not develop throughout life. Thus, schools must integrate and develop models of gender equality and respect for both boys and girls. The report further suggests that an unfortunate root for violence against women is gender inequality at all levels of society. Professor Louise Howard, the Commission’s lead author and a professor in Women’s Mental Health at King’s College London UK’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) says, “our findings reinforce the need for mental health services to follow the NICE Public Health 2014 guidance which recommended mental health professionals routinely ask about IPV as it is so common an experience of people using mental health services.”

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The difficulties with seeking mental health assistance

The commission found that many survivors of IPV, although they sought mental health services, found interacting with these services to be ‘harmful and retraumatising’. It cites previous research reported that around 2/3 of women and 1/3 of men in contact with mental health services experienced domestic abuse. “There is a distinct lack of training offered to mental health professionals like myself. I am a practising psychiatrist. As a medical student, a trainee, and even when I started practising in general adult psychiatry, I was never taught about the effects of domestic violence,” says Professor Louise Howard. The only way to reform this is by training practitioners in how to ask and respond safely to victims and create trauma care in conjunction with people who have experienced IPV.

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Responding to the GBV crisis

The authors of the report called for a collective societal effort to challenge IPV at all levels of society. It notes that whilst gender inequalities are present in all societal systems and institutions, it is more likely to affect those that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. As vital as it is to identify the problem, providing possible solutions is key, “collective momentum must be matched with real-world actions. In recent years we have seen the funding for specialist IPV services reduced, including in services designed specifically to aid women from racial minority backgrounds which were already severely underfunded,” says Professor Helen Fisher, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at King’s IoPPN.