Alaska study links domestic violence to poor health outcomes

By: Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon
Freshly made beds are seen in an unoccupied room at the Fairbanks emergency shelter, Interior Alaska center for Non-Violent Living on Oct. 14, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) – A new study from Alaska researchers shows that all types of intimate partner violence – including psychological aggression and controlling behavior as well as physical violence – are linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes. Intimate partner violence is the specific form of domestic violence that occurs between couples.

More than half of Alaska women have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault in their lifetimes. The new University of Alaska Anchorage study shows that those traumas, if left untreated, can have long-term health effects.

Dr. Ingrid Johnson from the university’s Justice Center said that sheds light on a public health issue. “We can’t just only focus on recent experiences,” she said. “A lot of people in our state have had these experiences that, even if they’re historical, put them at a higher risk or negative health outcomes.”

The study used frequent headaches as a health indicator. Women who had experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes reported having frequent headaches 1.5 times more than those who had never experienced IPV. Those who had experienced IPV recently reported frequent headaches 2.4 times as often. In cases of both recent and historic abuse, the results are statistically significant.

Johnson said researchers have more than a decade of data about violence against Alaska women that they have used to make a dataset they can analyze in depth. The goal is to increase understanding of the effects of violence on health, but also to increase understanding that psychological violence can be just as harmful as physical violence.

“When people talk about intimate partner violence, they focus on physical intimate partner violence, so they focus on someone being hit or slapped or shoved. And those are kind of the stereotypes that we have about violence,” she said. But she said there’s a range of harmful behaviors that don’t involve physical contact: things like threats, control of money or friendships or travel, psychological aggression, insults and humiliation.

“Those other forms of violence are quite common, and actually more common than physical violence, but also that they have pretty substantial impact on health or substantial relationships to health,” she said.

The study showed that women who were threatened with harm experienced frequent headaches nearly three times more than people who were not threatened with harm; women who experienced controlling behavior were 2.4 times more likely to report frequent headaches.

“A lot of these things that have really negative impacts on health aren’t even illegal — like controlling behaviors and psychological aggression behaviors — they’re not even something someone can report to the police,” Johnson said.

Since many harmful behaviors are not reportable crimes, it limits access to care for survivors, which Johnson said is a public health concern. “So what does our state have to offer people who might not be reporting to the criminal justice system or using victim services?” she asked.