Science and statistics only measure reported cases of abuse. Many people, proportionally more women and children, are left to silently suffer.
Despite notable writers contributing to national news agencies, domestic abuse has been a back-burner topic amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. On Twitter, the platform I’m most acquainted with, some have mentioned that being quarantined at home with abusive partners raises concerns of higher probabilities of domestic abuse. However, these conversations never last long and the news cycle moves onwards. Sadly, staying quiet is exactly what exacerbates this issue. Even worse, when survivors of domestic abuse are able to come forward, they can face shame and discrimination from the very authorities they are looking to for help. And many are looking for help right now, with calls at a Vancouver hotline increasing by 300% during the pandemic.
When people do think of domestic abuse, they rarely consider its impact on the brain.
Domestic abuse in the brain
Being a neuroscience student, I am endlessly interested in how our brains make us who we are. How does abuse manifest in the brain? Research is limited about the abusers themselves. From a neuroscientific perspective, it is difficult to speculate about what makes someone an abuser. Though pursuing demographics might be somewhat helpful, research must be careful not to promote the idea that only a single kind of person can be an abuser. Painting with broad strokes may indeed discriminate but painting with too fine a brush might allow some to hide in plain sight.
Better documented, are the neurological consequences of intimate partner violence and childhood abuse. An overwhelming number of women suffering from physical domestic abuse report receiving blows to the head and loss of consciousness. This raises the possibility of concussion, and with it, traumatic brain injury. Most commonly associated with football players, the sequelae of repetitive brain injury are extremely varied and can result in grave effects on both mental and physical health. Unsurprisingly, there is overlap between the experience of domestic violence and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, which I discussed last month.
One study found that the brains of victims of intimate partner violence had reduced frontal and occipital brain volumes, as compared to non-victimized control subjects. The frontal lobe is associated with so-called executive functions like planning, decision making, and defining personality while the occipital lobe is in part devoted to processing vision. More research is needed to identify any related clinical outcomes from these findings. In the same study, reduced frontal lobe volume in those suffering intimate partner violence was related to worse performance in a cognitive task.
Of course, domestic abuse is not solely an intimate partner issue. Sadly, as a child, simply being exposed to parental verbal abuse can result in changes in brain areas responsible for language and increased scores of depression and anxiety.
A need for research and clinical interventions
Though it is heartwarming and benevolent, relying on the kindness of empathic celebrities like Rihanna, who donated $2.1 million USD to help those affected by domestic abuse in Los Angeles, is not enough. Thankfully, the Canadian government has pledged to financially support women’s shelters and sexual assault resources during the pandemic. But what about clinical care?
The evidence is clear. We need to continue pursuing neuroscientific questions for the sake of understanding the relevant consequences of domestic abuse, which are almost always left untreated. We need to prioritize access of neuropsychological care available to victims of domestic abuse. One thing we can all do right now is spread awareness about the fact that domestic violence can result in brain injury. We can also refuse to be silent bystanders if we suspect domestic abuse, especially now, when victims are restricted from movement during the spread of COVID-19.
Help is available
For help with abuse, consult this resource or this one, which list help-lines available across Canada.
In Nova Scotia, the Transition House Association’s 24-hour toll-free line is 1-855-225-0220 and the Nova Scotia Domestic Violence Resource Centre can be found here.
If you are being denied access to the essential healthcare of an abortion, you can self-refer at this toll-free number: 1-833-352-0719.
The Kids Help Phone line is 1-800-668-6868.
If you are someone who suffers with a brain injury, national resources are here, and the Brain Injury Association of Nova Scotia is the collective voice locally addressing the needs of those with brain injuries.
Share this information widely with the hopes that it reaches someone in need.
Photo Credit: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash, edited by Tareq Yousef