Mental Health and Violence

This article is part of a blog series. Check out our other posts, too!

The relationship between mental health,violence and traumatic events is undoubtedly complicated and emotionally charged. The aftermath of such experiences may weigh a heavy physical and emotional toll on a variety of people - direct victims, loved ones, rescue workers and even working professionals involved in providing trauma treatment and resources. With so many people experiencing trauma in their lifetimes, it’s important to know the risk factors associated with such incidents.

Domestic Violence and Your Mental Health

Domestic violence remains a huge part of our  society. In fact, the National Domestic Violence hotline reports that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men report experiencing physical violence, rape, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

In general, over 12 million adults experience some form of domestic violence each year.

Not only does this type of violence present with numerous short-term risks, such as physical injury and sickness, poor mental health, and risky behaviors like substance use, but it also can lead to many long-term potential consequences.

In 2015, several authors of Violence Affects Physical and Mental Health Differently: The General Population Based Tomsø Study found that exposure to both psychological violence (being threatened, stalked, or tormented) and physical violence resulted in poorer mental health status, increased risk of musculoskeletal pain, and general physical health hazards. Such abuse is also associated with reduced quality of life, increased mortality, injury and disability, chronic pain, substance abuse, reproductive disorders, and pregnancy complications. Psychological effects can include feeling heightened feelings of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide compared to people who have not been abused.

Furthermore, research from Zlatka Rakovec-Felser shows that a history of domestic violence presents with a higher correlation of substance use disorders, eating and sleep disorders, poor self-esteem, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and self-harm.

The presence of abuse in the household can impact physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Children may experience more behavioral problems, sleep disturbances, and developmental regression. They may also be more likely to learn and believe that violence is an acceptable way to cope with adverse feelings.  

Many victims of domestic violence have repeated patterns of abusive relationships, and it can be very challenging to break this cycle. It’s important for these individuals to receive both physical and emotional support in their recoveries.

Student Mental Health When Their Safety At School is Threatened

Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings, averaging at about one per week over the past five years. There’s no doubt that school shootings are devastating, horrific and traumatic for victims, loved ones, and the surrounding community.

In general, research shows that mass shootings are associated with several adverse psychological symptoms including heightened fear and decreased sense of safety. In its studies examining school shootings, the National Center for PTSD found that between 10-36% of witnesses to mass shootings met criteria for postdisaster diagnoses (predominantly PTSD) after the incident. While everyone responds to trauma differently, very few students interviewed after surviving school shootings reported having no symptoms. After the Columbine shooting in 1999, nearly all students reported feeling numb and then intensely guilty, irritable, or nervous within the subsequent weeks afterward.

The American Psychological Association recommends several coping strategies students can take in the wake of a school shooting.

  • Taking Care of the Physical Self: This refers to eating well-balanced meals, getting plenty of rest, and exercising regularly. It also refers to avoiding mood-altering substances, such as drugs and alcohol, which can suppress feelings. Physical self-care can enhance overall distress tolerance, which is important in the wake of trauma.
  • Talking About It: Students should feel safe to reach out and talk about their feelings with peers and loved ones. Simply talking about shared experiences or concerns can create a sense of community and connectedness.
  • Limiting Media Use: Even though it may feel tempting to stay updated, 24/7 saturation of nonstop news can become draining and actually increase stress levels. Schedule regular breaks to turn it off.
  • Honoring Feelings: School shooting witnesses can experience a vast range of emotions in the subsequent days and weeks after the trauma. It is important to acknowledge that all feelings are okay and normal.
  • Staying Productive: Students can feel more empowered after school shootings by focusing on others and becoming involved in local advocacy or community support.

The Far-Reaching Impact of Terrorism

Within terrorism lies the word terror, and terrorism refers to the use of violence to invoke fear and to compromise the safety and security of people. Acts of terrorism are deliberate and intentionally aimed at civilians or public figures, which can result in intense community feelings of helplessness, fear, anger, and depression.

Research from the National Center for PTSD reports that individuals who are most directly exposed to terrorist attacks are especially vulnerable to developing PTSD.

September 11, 2011, America’s largest single terrorist attack, impacted tens of thousands of people. These included direct victims, loved ones, rescue workers, colleagues, friends, emergency medical and healthcare providers, and media personnel. After two months of the incident, PTSD rates in nearby New York cities prevalence hovered around 8%, and depression was around 10%. Two years later, up to 201% of employees working in the Pentagon were found to have PTSD.

Terrorism can also seriously impact children and their mental health. Research from the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that up to 60% of New York parents reported that their child displayed post-traumatic stress reactions six weeks after the September 11 attacks.

Today, in our increasingly connected society, it’s easy for people to receive 24/7 instantaneous news all around the world. Technology advances provide an option for people to watch terrorism unfolding from their smartphones or social media feeds. While research has not yet examined the long-term effects of the relationship between technology and such violence, it is possible that how we understand, cope, and contextualize terrorism will evolve over the years.

Final Thoughts on Violence and Mental Health

As researchers and mental health professionals continue to examine the relationship between violence and mental health, our society will ideally develop more preventative measures and appropriate interventions for helping trauma victims. Continued education and understanding of the short-and long-term psychological implications of violence remain essential for everyone.