Domestic violence impacts wellness

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When people think of health and wellness, they tend to think of major medical problems like cancer, diabetes and obesity. Those issues get a lot of publicity, and with good reason: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of all Americans are obese. More than 11 million people are living with some form of cancer, and more than 25 million have diabetes.

Yet, how many of us think about how our relationships affect our wellness?

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, affects one-third of all women in the U.S. In Maine, about half of the annual homicides are related to domestic violence.

The CDC estimates that domestic violence-related health care costs exceed $5.8 billion every year, and the World Health Organization has found that living in an abusive relationship can take years off a woman’s lifespan.

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For male victims, it may be difficult to come forward because of cultural expectations that men be strong and “in charge.”

The effects of domestic violence are not limited to physical injury. Many people in abusive relationships develop chronic stress, hypertension, and mental health diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The constant fear and insecurity of living with an abusive partner can lead to anxiety and depression.

There is an enormous emotional component to abuse, as well. Abusers will often break down a victim’s self-esteem to maintain power and control over that individual.

A constant barrage of verbal and emotional abuse takes a toll on the victim’s sense of self-worth and their motivation. What’s more, many victims are isolated by the abuse and feel cut off from their community, making it even more difficult to leave.

For those reasons, domestic violence agencies such as Safe Voices (formerly Abused Women’s Advocacy Project) seek partnerships with a variety of health care providers.

Safe Voices provides training and support to hospitals, including Central Maine Medical Center, St. Mary’s and Franklin Memorial Hospital, as well as counseling services such as Tri-County Mental Health Services and Community Concepts Mental Health Program. It also works with Physicians for Social Responsibility to conduct trainings for providers.

Health care providers are able to provide a safe space if someone is experiencing domestic violence. They have the opportunity to ask about safety at home and provide resources. Individual community members can be helpful, too.

If you suspect a friend or loved one is in an abusive relationship, try asking open-ended questions. For example, “Is there anything going on at home you would like to talk about?” or, “Do you feel safe in your relationship?” Try to have these conversations in private to protect the individual and build trust.

Our understanding of health and wellness should include the quality of our relationships as well as the figures in our medical charts. Health care providers can be one more resource in raising awareness about domestic violence and creating healthy communities.

Victoria Williams is Androscoggin County community educator for Safe Voices, formerly Abused Women’s Advocacy Project. To learn more about domestic violence or get help for a friend or loved one, contact Safe Voices’ 24-hour confidential helpline at 1-800-559-2927.

Safe Voices will host a wellness tent at its annual Walk to End Domestic Violence from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, May 14. The tent will feature a variety of health screenings and massage. Anyone interested in walking can request pledge sheets online at www.safevoices.org or call Lana Whittemore at 795-6744 ext. 14.

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