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Up until now, there has been confusion whether the mental illness or the abuse came first and very few previous studies have been able to demonstrate the direction of the relationship.

This new study is the first of its kind in the UK to clearly show that the relationship runs both ways and the key findings were:

  • those experiencing domestic abuse are nearly three times as likely to develop mental illness
  • women who are experiencing domestic abuse are also nearly three times more likely to have a history of mental illness
  • this is the first study to show the link between domestic abuse and serious mental illness (bipolar and schizophrenia)
  • there is a huge discrepancy found between the abuse reported in GP practices and the national data, showing significant under-reporting.

The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that not only was there a higher chance of developing mental illness after experiencing domestic abuse, but those with mental illness were more likely to go on to experience further domestic abuse.

Using medical records from UK GP surgeries between 1995 and 2017, researchers have been able to build a narrative of women within the large database before and after experiencing domestic abuse.

The authors identified 18,547 women who had experienced domestic abuse, recorded by their GP. They compared these women to a control group of 74,188 similarly aged women who had not had experience of domestic abuse recorded.

It is the first of its kind in the UK because it is a cohort study, which is a study where people are followed up over time from the point where they have experienced trauma until the point they develop mental illness.

During the final year of the study in 2017, the reported prevalence of domestic abuse was only 0.5% for women in the database. However, the Office for National Statistics estimates this figure should be closer to in 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic abuse at any point in their lifetime. It is apparent from this study, therefore, that domestic abuse is under-recorded by GPs.

GPs said they were highly trained to spot it, but it was often well-hidden.

The study was based on 18,547 women who had told their GP of domestic abuse they had experienced.

They were followed up over a number of years and compared with a group of more than 74,000 women of a similar age who had no experience of domestic abuse.

Dr Joht Singh Chandan, lead author and academic clinical fellow in public health at the University of Birmingham, said the burden of mental illness caused by domestic abuse in the UK could be much higher than previously thought.

“Considering how common domestic abuse is, it is important to understand how strongly the two are connected and consider whether there are possible opportunities to improve the lives of women affected by domestic abuse.”

Under-reporting of abuse

According to official crime figures, around one in four women experiences domestic abuse during her lifetime.

But this study, based on GP records, found that fewer than one in 100 women are affected, suggesting some degree of under-reporting.

The researchers say more could be done by the police to flag up domestic abuse to healthcare professionals.

And they call for better support for women with a background of domestic abuse to prevent mental illnesses developing.

Dr Beena Rajkumar, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said domestic abuse had a ‘devastating impact’ on mental health.

“Screening and recording of domestic abuse needs to be a clear priority for public services so that more effective interventions for this group of vulnerable women can urgently be put in place.”

Source: Medical Xpress

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