Paula Walters was strangled by her boyfriend in 2006.

“I remember him putting his hands around my throat and thinking, ‘I’m going to die’.”

For years afterwards she kept forgetting things, struggling to concentrate and losing control of her emotions.

At her lowest point, she even tried to take her own life. What Paula didn’t know, was that her symptoms were not because she was “crazy” or “stupid”.

They were the result of a brain injury sustained in the strangulation.

Paula survived, thanks to a neighbour who found her severely beaten and took her to hospital. But neither she nor the medics thought to consider the possibility of a brain injury at the time.

It wasn’t until an MRI scan after a car crash in 2017 revealed the extent of the problem, that the connection was made.

Even now, Paula battles with the symptoms caused by the damage done that night. “It’s a really, really lonely place to be,” she says.

But Paula is not alone. In the first community- based study of its kind, researchers in Ohio found that 81 per cent of domestic violence survivors reported being hit on the head.

More than 50 per cent were hit so repeatedly that they couldn’t remember exactly how many times.

Meanwhile, 83 per cent said they had been choked or strangled.

Many are likely to have experienced both repetitive head injuries and strangulation, a deadly combination that could lead to memory loss, difficulty understanding, loss of motivation, anxiety and problems with vision and hearing.

The research indicates that high numbers of domestic violence survivors are living with undiagnosed, unrecognised brain injuries.

And no one yet knows what this could mean for them in the long term.

“Although we know it’s very common that domestic violence survivors experience blows to the head, neck and face, we were not expecting to see the numbers that we did,” says Julianna Nemeth, assistant professor of health behaviour and health promotion at Ohio State University, and lead researcher on the study.

“It’s not just that most survivors accessing services have had exposures that can lead to brain injury, but the number of times they reported it.”

While previous research has linked brain injury to domestic violence, this is the first study to gather such detailed information from the field.

Researchers interviewed female survivors not only from shelters but those accessing a wide range of community services.

Like Paula, many in the study had been experiencing lasting physical and mental health problems as a result of their experience, but had never considered that it could be a brain injury.

Instead they were blaming the abuse, and in many cases, themselves.

“People that we’ve talked to struggle with ongoing mental health issues, suicide ideation, substance use and physical health issues, such as concentration and issues with vision, hearing and balance,” says Nemeth.

“Many survivors were ascribing those symptoms to the abuse or trauma, but not recognising that it could be a brain injury, and not because they are crazy, because their abuser has told them that.

“Just putting symptoms in front of people, and providing the information that these symptoms have to do with a brain injury, gave some survivors a sense of relief.”

Dr Eve Valera an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, published one of the first studies examining the prevalence of intimate partner violence (IPV) related to traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2003.

She first became interested in the link when working in a women’s shelter while at university, but at that point there wasn’t a single piece of literature on the subject.

Valera interviewed 99 women, from shelters and the community, and found that around three quarters had sustained at least one mild TBI from their partners, and half had sustained repetitive brain injuries.

The number of brain injuries and severity was also negatively associated with measures of memory, learning, and cognitive flexibility in the women, and these women were much more likely to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and general distress.

“One in three women will experience at least some physical or sexual IPV after the age of 15, and if you look at the numbers that I have, you’re talking about millions of women walking around with undiagnosed, unrecognised repetitive head injuries,” she says.

“These are our daughters, our mothers, our friends, our colleagues, our partners. Everybody knows somebody who has experienced this, it’s virtually impossible not to – even if they may not tell you.”

Valera is now working on a larger study, partly replicating those which have examined concussions in athletes, in order to explore the potential long-term consequences of these injuries for women, and how they might contribute to ageing and the development of neurodegenerative diseases, as seen
in those suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

She hopes to bridge the gap between the lack of research on the topic compared with that on concussion in men.

“It’s an international public health epidemic,” she says.

“If you think of the numbers, it’s far more than athletes, far more than in the military. We have all these resources and studies on male athletes and there’s nothing like that with respect to women experiencing IPV.

“We’ve not even scratched the surface, but we do know enough to know that this is dangerous and we need to find out exactly how it’s affecting women in the long term.”

Valera has seen women in their 40s and 50s with histories of repetitive head injuries, who are now struggling to remember how to spell certain words, or help their children with their homework.

“It could be that huge swathes of the population worldwide have been negatively affected in their older years because they sustained years of abuse to the head,” she adds.

But while the long-term impact remains uncertain for now, the immediate dangers are far more clear-cut.

“People with concussions can’t process information as well, and the idea that they can navigate a potentially dangerous situation drops significantly if you’re dealing with a concussion on top of everything,” says Valera.

The complexity of their situations also means that someone sustaining a concussion as a result of IPV, is less likely to make a good recovery.

According to Valera, not recognising or addressing the potential brain injury or concussion means they are unlikely to seek immediate medical care or take a break from their daily activities, both of which are vital for making a full recovery.

Other factors such as being under acute stress, injuries elsewhere on the body and sustaining repeated concussions with relative frequency without giving injuries time to heal, are not conducive to optimum recovery.

“If they do go to the ER, it’s likely for a broken bone or blood coming from somewhere.

“There’s a disjoint between what people are learning in sports or military data, where we see most repetitive head injury studies, and what a woman may think is going on with her.”

The symptoms are not being recognised by those who are in a position to help survivors either.

Data suggests that frontline staff anticipate the number of women with a concussion coming into their care as far lower than the number actually is, and many don’t feel comfortable addressing brain injury with their clients.

“We really need to start understanding this better and getting this information out there to women, and all the different stakeholders who interact with these women.

“If you don’t realise they’ve got a brain injury you’re going to see them in a very different light.

“We need to be approaching women that have been in this situation with the idea that they may have sustained a concussion and factor that into how we care for them.”

The Ohio study interviewed 62 staff members from five agencies across the state and, according to researchers, professionals such as advocates, healthcare providers and law enforcement personnel are not considering that the individual they are dealing with could be behaving a certain way because they are suffering from a brain injury.

“Advocates absolutely want to help the survivors that are coming into their services, but we haven’t made the link yet as a service community between the potential for brain injury and the symptoms we’re seeing in front of us,” says Nemeth.

“We assume that the symptoms we see are because of psychological trauma or potentially mental health or other substance use issues.”

In direct response to the study’s findings, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network has developed the CARE (Connect, Acknowledge, Respond and Evaluate) model, an intervention tool which provides free resources to survivors and service providers to help them identify when someone may have a brain injury and how to respond appropriately to get them the care they need.

The next steps involve developing protocols for all services that come into contact with survivors, to ensure that brain injury is always put on the table as a possibility.

“We need to rule out brain injury instead of ruling it in,” adds Nemeth.

Elsewhere in the US, PINK Concussions, the first ever non-profit organisation for women and girls with brain injuries, is also working with women’s shelters to try to increase awareness among frontline staff.

Founder Katherine Price Snedaker (pictured above) says: “The shelters that we’ve spoken to have been overwhelmed, but what we say is that we don’t need you to diagnose brain injury, we just need you to be aware of it in the same way that we ask sports coaches and parents to be aware of brain injuries.

“I don’t think it’s anything that workers aren’t already dealing with. It’s the reason clients aren’t showing up to appointments on time, that they are cranky or irritable, or they don’t have all the details.

“You may see them as non-functioning and irritable people, but if you see them as someone with a brain injury that might allow you more patience and understanding.”

A brain injury could also be the reason that a survivors’ story is inconsistent, or that they may appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

This is something which Valera tries to convey to police officers dealing with domestic disputes.

“How someone looks after they’ve sustained a brain injury is a lot like someone who’s intoxicated.

“They may be dizzy, disorientated, vomiting or seem confused and may not remember.

“Yes, often there are drugs and alcohol involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s the culprit for what you’re seeing there.”

It’s like a lightbulb moment, Valera says, when people realise what is really going on.

But how has something so obvious gone under the radar for so long?

A general lack of understanding of IPV, combined with the stigma that survivors face, means it is often easier for everyone to keep the problem hidden.

“IPV is so stigmatising that individuals don’t want to admit to it,” says Valera. “There’s so much victim-blaming and misogyny involved, that it’s not easy to own it and say ‘that happened to me’.”

Especially as so often when a woman does speak out, she is faced with the question: Why doesn’t she just leave?

Approximately three quarters of intimate partner murders occur while a woman is attempting to leave, or after they have left.

“It’s not a silly belief that a woman may actually be killed for leaving,” says Valera.

And it’s even more difficult to speak up for those women who are further marginalised in society.

“Women are already fighting the stigma of domestic violence and trauma, and brain injury is an invisible illness, so you have invisible people with invisible injuries,” says Price Snedaker.

“And if they are a woman of colour or there’s a language barrier – all these barriers stack up. We have very few women of colour that come forward. That’s a group that we really need to reach out to more.”

IPV is a topic which people not only don’t understand, but don’t want to understand, she says.

“No one likes to think about it and people don’t necessarily think women are worth it.

“People have an impression that it’s just a problem for other people – those in the ghettos, the drug addicts and the poor people – but it absolutely diversifies all socioeconomic classes.”

Paula Walters actually worked with trauma victims in the same hospital where she was treated, yet the true extent of her injuries still went unrecognised.

“As much as I know about trauma, I totally missed the strangulation part of the brain and the effects that it has had on my body,” she says.

“My friends and family have watched me try to end my own life. That all could have been avoided if the right people had had the right knowledge.”

In order to make it part of the public conversation we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, says Valera.

“[Women] are being dragged down the street, thrown out of cars, having refrigerators thrown on them, their head stamped on with work boots, smashed against cement floors, or hit with a baseball bat.

“We need to start talking about IPV as if it’s not this horrible disease or crime. It’s something that is happening to women all over the place.

“We can’t just keep looking the other way or saying it’s their fault.”


Why men injured in domestic violence must be encouraged to speak out too

The studies cited in our domestic violence report are focused entirely on female victims of intimate partner violence.

However, men, of course, may also suffer brain injury at the hands of their partner or a family member at home.

The latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year March 2018, show an estimated two million adults aged 16 to 59 years reported domestic abuse during the period.

Of those, 695,000 were men. The real figure for both genders is thought to be much higher. Stigma, fear of retaliation and lack of trust in the police are among the deterrents to reporting such incidents, say researchers at University of South Wales (USW) who run the Compass programme, which helps men to consider themselves as victims, challenging gender stereotypes.

The US body, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), meanwhile, estimates that one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, compared to one in three women.

This gap widens, however, when the severity of the attacks is measured. While one in seven women have been injured by an intimate partner, this falls to one in 25 among men, NCADV says.

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