Sheela Raja remembers treating a victim of teen dating violence who at first felt too ashamed to talk about the experience. Instead, the victim buried the trauma in alcohol until she finally opened up during therapy.
Raja, a licensed clinical psychologist, and other domestic violence experts are calling for more awareness about the negative health consequences of dating violence. A study in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics tackled just that subject.
Researchers used a sample of more than 5,000 participants in a national study who had dated as teens or preteens in 1996, and evaluated them five years later, when they were in their late teens or early to mid-20s, for physical and psychological dating violence victimization.
Researchers from Cornell University and the Boston University School of Medicine, assessed the participants for problems such as depression, self-esteem, antisocial behaviors, sexual risk behaviors, weight problems, suicidal thinking, substance abuse and adult intimate partner violence victimization.
About 30 percent of men and 31 percent of women reported a history of physical and/or psychological dating violence.
Results showed the teen victims of physical or psychological abuse were more than twice as likely to be re-victimized in adulthood. Women were 1.5 times more likely to binge drink or smoke, twice as likely to feel suicidal and showed increased depression, while men showed more antisocial behavior, were 1.3 times more likely to use marijuana and twice as likely to feel suicidal.
Deinera Exner-Cortens, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at Cornell in the department of human development and Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, became interested in the subject while she was researching HIV and AIDS in Africa during a college internship and noticed the link between abuse and the disease.
“We know that dating violence is a really important public health problem and has an impact on adolescent development,” said Exner-Cortens. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to look at these outcomes over a long period of time.”
The study’s authors also suggested improved screening for abuse and prevention. Raja agreed.
“Immediately afterward, one of the biggest issues is shame and not wanting to come forward and talk about it, feeling like they did something to deserve it and that’s one of the biggest barriers,” said Raja, also assistant professor of dentistry and medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Sometimes we see people on the surface and think, ‘Oh, they’re OK, they’re doing well,’ they could have these issues and they’re not being addressed,” Raja said.
To help such victims, blame should be avoided, Raja said, though immediate safety is always a concern. She gives such patients a chance to weigh the pros and cons of their experiences and choices and look at how they are coping. She noted better mental health options are crucial for victims and unfortunately, because of budget cuts, in short supply.
Paul Schewe, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, also at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is researching how teens end romances and whether they can be taught to end relationships in a healthy manner. Otherwise the consequence can be stalking, drug abuse and suicide, he noted.
“I think adults tend to dismiss these teen relationships, saying, ‘Oh, it’s just puppy love,’ ” said Schewe. “The emotional attachment is very, very real, very strong.
“There’s tons of emotion and passion and that’s why when those relationships end, people revert to suicide.”
Schewe plans to do focus groups and interviews of victims, along with larger scale surveys, to try to better understand and prevent the cycle of abuse. Those results could then be used by educators in teen violence prevention programs. He said the solution needs to come from different segments of society and include parents, park districts, churches and mosques.
“It really requires intervention at every level of the social ecology, as well as developmentally,” said Schewe. “As kids grow and develop, these things need to be addressed.”