Psychological, physical abuse equally harmful to health

October 24, 2002

Abuse by an intimate partner can have serious immediate and long-term health consequences for both men and women, according to a new, large-scale study. And that abuse does not need to be physical or sexual to be harmful.

A high level of psychological abuse appears to put its victims at equal risk of developing physical and mental health problems.

"Our data support the growing body of research suggesting that we need to extend screening to include physical and sexual abuse, as well as psychological abuse or battering" in both men and women, reports lead author Ann L. Coker, Ph.D., of the University of Texas School of Public Health.

The investigators propose that "if intimate partner violence can be identified early" by clinicians using this expanded screening, "interventions could be developed to reduce [its] impact ... on mental and physical health status."

Coker and her colleagues analyzed data obtained during the National Violence Against Women Survey. Surveyors telephoned 16,000 American adults aged 18 to 65, selected to represent the entire U.S. population, in order to document participants' health status and history of victimization by an intimate partner. For purposes of the survey, an "intimate partner" was defined as a current or former spouse or a cohabiting intimate partner, regardless of gender.

The results appear in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Approximately 29 percent of the 6,790 women and 23 percent of the 7,122 men who responded reported at least one of the three forms of abuse from an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Psychological abuse was more commonly reported than either physical or sexual abuse, accounting for almost half of the violence among the women and more than three-quarters of the violence among the men.

Analysis of the health and partner violence data revealed that "physical and psychological intimate partner violence are associated with [many of the same] significant physical and mental health consequences for both male and female victims," Coker reports. Men and women who experienced either form of violence were more likely than participants who did not experience partner violence to develop a chronic physical or mental illness, and were more prone to poor general health, depression, injury and abuse of drugs and alcohol.

According to Coker, the finding that "women experiencing intimate partner violence are more likely to report poor physical and mental health" is consistent with previous research. But because previous investigations have focused primarily on the effects of physical and sexual abuse on women, Coker explains that the present study's findings not only reinforce, but also expand on, the existing literature.

The observation that the vast majority of men abused by their intimate partners suffer psychological violence is especially noteworthy, Coker observes, as it indicates that the "need for clinicians to screen for psychological forms of intimate partner violence as well as for physical and sexual assault in intimate relationships ... is particularly true for male victims."
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Jacqueline Preston at (713) 500-3033 or
American Journal of Preventive Medicine: Contact the editorial office at (619) 594-7344.

Center for Advancing Health

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