Domestic abuse and men’s mental health

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and November is Men’s Mental Health month. Could the proximity of these two months have a greater significance than we realise?

Domestic abuse is a year-round issue, with the pandemic causing an increase in cases globally. It’s an issue that can be faced by anyone, regardless of gender. However, women are statistically more at risk of being victims of domestic abuse. The CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the USA released data showing that about one in five women reports physical violence by their partner throughout their life, with approximately one in seven men reporting the same.

So, how does men’s mental health tie into all of this?

There are obvious consequences of being a victim of abuse. PTSD, trauma, depression and suicide are only a few of the serious consequences of experiencing abuse, especially at the hands of a partner. Men are far less likely to report abuse or seek help, especially for mental health. A study was conducted in Psychology of Men & Masculinity, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by the American Psychological Association, in January 2012. It aimed at measuring the conformity to masculine norms, self-stigma regarding therapy and attitudes towards seeking help in a group of 4,748 men of all ages, education levels and population sizes.

Of the 4,748, 2,034 (42.8%) met the clinical cut-off for depression on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale. Apart from that, the study revealed that conformity to the dominant masculine norms, as well as self-stigma and a negative attitude towards seeking mental or emotional help, are still prominent issues that men face today.

Mental health does not, however, only have an impact on victims of domestic abuse. The CDC defined several risk factors for intimate partner violence perpetration (or domestic abuse) including, but not limited to, low self-esteem, depression, poor behavioural control, experiences with abuse as a child, desire for control-specifically over women, and stress. Other factors were also mentioned, such as drug or alcohol abuse and a belief in strict gender roles. Factors within a relationship such as jealousy, or having bad examples of relationships growing up were also listed. And of course, community factors such as poverty, crime or societal norms were among other listed risk factors. Although it should not be seen as the sole solution to the problem of domestic abuse, therapy is a helpful and effective tool to combat most of the risk factors mentioned.

Through therapy, patients can dig deeper to discover the roots of certain behaviours, beliefs and emotions that cause them to react in different ways. Through sessions with a therapist they can trust, it is possible to open up and allow true emotions and fears to surface without the risk of condemnation. Triggers or insecurities can be uncovered and processed in order to gain more control over actions and behaviours. But there is still a stigma around therapy. For years, it was believed to only be for truly lost or unstable or ill people. Psychologist, Deryl Goldenberg, wrote about his experience working with men and their resistance to seeking help and stated ‘For many men, admitting to having a personality flaw (or two or three) can feel like admitting to having leprosy.’

In the study mentioned before, the authors stated that by failing to recognise that our culture shames men for feeling, psychotherapy has failed men. It is not enough to say that men are free to feel and be vulnerable after years of conditioning to ‘be a man’ and ‘toughen up’. How are they expected to accept their emotions and process them when doing just that is seen as more feminine and feminine attributes are shamed from childhood (i.e telling a boy he throws or hits like a girl to insinuate that he is weaker than he is expected to be).

What if the ways in which men’s mental health is viewed were to change?

Avi Klein, a psychotherapist in New York City, explains the story of how he started reaching his male clients who tended to be detached from their emotions. He considered that these men had experienced years of growing up without their emotional needs being met, which led to them being dismissive of those very same needs in their adult lives. So, instead of letting them dismiss their emotions in certain situations, Avi would allow them into his emotional world first by admitting a specific emotion he was feeling while listening to them and then asking them how they felt about the situation of which they were speaking. This creates a safe space where the clients can see that feelings are natural and normal, even for men. Their feelings are not dismissed, criticised or manipulated into weapons.

We as a society need to look past our socialisations to truly help men (and women) feel free to seek the help they need

Domestic violence is a serious problem faced by people globally, and in most cases, it can be prevented and victims can be protected. Mental health, although not the magic button to end it all, is very important in the battle against domestic violence.

If you, or someone you know, is a victim of any form of abuse in Belgium, there are several numbers you can call. The Violence and Abuse Helpline (1712), Ecoute Violences Conjugales (0800 30 030) and SOS Viol (02/534 36 36). If you are a migrant and are unsure of your rights or who to call, view this resource. For any emergencies, you can call the police at 101 or the emergency at 112.

Text: Danica Van der Merwe, Final edit: Andrei Stiru
Photo: © Danica Van der Merwe