Family Violence and Health

Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star on September 28, 2014
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

Adriana* looks deep into her coffee cup as we talk. She doesn’t make eye contact with me at all, although I have known her for years.

“It’s been six years since I escaped my abusive husband, but it’s still hard for me to talk about. So many people still blame me for staying with him as long as I did. Others saw that he was abusive with his words, but they didn’t even know about the bruises and physical threats. The constant verbal abuse broke my spirit early on.

“If someone tells you over and over that you are a stupid, ugly, illegal and you could never make it on your own, you start to believe it. People don’t understand how powerful it is until they are trapped in that situation. When it is the father of your children, it is even worse. He never laid a hand on my kids, and he provided us with everything material we needed—a nice house, food, clothes. Here I was, undocumented, without any education or a job. How was I going to leave him and still take care of my kids?

“When I finally did make the decision to move in with a relative, he came and found me and the children and hit me again, and this time he threatened to take the kids and have me deported. I was scared to lose my children. I was so depressed. I gained weight, I had headaches all of the time, I couldn’t sleep, and I had a cough that didn’t go away for years.”

We simply can’t talk about health in our community without acknowledging the reality of domestic violence. Numerous studies have documented the negative health effects of family violence. We are heading into October, Domestic Violence Awareness month and I spoke with Dr. Nora Montalvo, the Board President of the non-profit organization Friendship of Women, which provides services, shelter, counseling and advocacy for victims of domestic violence.

“Family violence affects individuals, families and communities. The physical and emotional impacts and separation are the initial issues followed by the after-effects of what kids and family members have endured. The most common health effects among the women and children we see are depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), headaches and eating disorders including overeating and anorexia/bulimia. Studies are also showing higher rates of cervical cancer among women victims of domestic violence, and low-birth weight and asthma among the children of victims. (Coker, 2009) The effect of domestic violence on health is well documented in scientific literature, and we are seeing it in this community as well.”

Montalvo, who volunteers her time to facilitate support groups for Friendship of Women, goes on to explain that many of the health conditions present with the women manifest in their children.

“But children aren’t being diagnosed because there aren’t enough counseling or mental health services in our area. Children of victims of domestic violence are falling into the cracks. We are losing these kids who often drop-out of school, may try to escape the violence at home by becoming pregnant and often suffer from untreated depression and anxiety. There is an urgency to address the high rates of domestic violence in our community—for the sake of all of the victims, including the children!”

Many victims of domestic violence are unable to take care of their basic health needs. They often aren’t able to eat well and rarely exercise, thus contributing to already high rates of overweight and obesity in our community. This can end up costing all of us when violence leads victims to emergency rooms for care not just for injury but for ongoing untreated chronic health problems that turn into acute illness.

Adriana looks up from her coffee, and directly into my eyes, with tears streaming down her face, she says with an impassioned voice. “Your legal status isn’t what matters, and these agencies are here to help everyone. We are all human beings and living with abuse is inhumane! It’s been a long journey but I am finally free, healthy and able to take care of myself and my kids.”

If you are or someone you know is living in a violent, abusive situation, there are people who can help. The first step is to call (in Brownsville) Friendship of Women (956) 544-7412 or (in Harlingen) Family Crisis Center 1-866-423-9304 24 hour hotline. Let’s work together to address this urgent need, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

* Name has been changed