After violence, women's mental health suffers

Updated: 2011-08-05 14:31


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NEW YORK - Women who have been sexually assaulted, abused by a partner or stalked may face high lifetime risks of depression and other mental health conditions, according to an Australian study.

The study, which covered more than 4,400 women and was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 27 percent said they had suffered from sexual or physical violence, or been stalked.

Those women were three to 11 times more likely to have ever had a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety disorders, with the risk climbing in tandem with violent experiences.

For women who had suffered at least three of four types of violence - rape, other sexual assaults, physical abuse by a partner or stalking - a full 89 percent had a mental health condition at some point in their lives.

That compared to 28 percent of women who said they had never experienced such violence.

"There are compelling reasons to support the strong likelihood that gender-based violence is a major contributor to mental disorders in women," said lead researcher Susan Rees, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

"The strong association with mental disorders shown in this study indicates that violence against women should be considered and responded to as a major public health problem."

The findings do not prove that the violence itself caused women's mental health problems, but Rees said it was likely.

In many cases, she added, women in the study said their first experience with violence came at an early age, before the mental health problems.

Of the 139 women who'd suffered several different types of violence, 77 percent had an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

More than half had post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, while nearly half had abused drugs or alcohol. Thirty-five percent said they'd attempted suicide.

When researchers accounted for factors such as education and income levels, these women were still 11 times more likely to have had some type of mental health problem, versus women who said they'd never been sexually assaulted, abused or stalked.

Rees noted that the 27 percent rate of violence against women found in the Australian study was similar to that found in the United States, as were the links with poor mental health.

"There needs to be a full acknowledgement at all levels of society that gender-based violence remains at epidemic levels in our communities, and that the problem must be addressed through public campaigns to challenge social attitudes towards women and gender inequality," she added.

Mental health professionals generally need a better understanding of gender-based violence and how it affects women, and there needs to be more collaboration between the mental health field and services for abused women, so that more women get the health they need, Rees said.

"The reality is that once exposed, women are likely to experience the same form of abuse again or other forms of related abuse," she added.

"The longer they delay in confronting the problem, the more likely they will incur the adverse consequences."