Depression Puts Women at Increased Risk for Domestic Violence, Study Finds

depression woman pressing her face against a window

Domestic violence is the collective term for a range of behaviors designed to assert or maintain control over a partner in an intimate relationship. While men and women can both become targets of this type of violence, women remain far more susceptible than men. Doctors and mental health researchers already know that exposure to domestic violence can significantly increase an individual’s chances of developing medically serious depression. According to the results of a study published in 2013 in the journal PLOS Medicine, women, but not men, have a two-way risk that also makes them more susceptible to domestic violence after they become depressed.

Domestic Violence Basics

Domestic violence is also known as intimate partner violence. Both of these terms incorporate a broadly conceived perspective on violent activities that encompasses physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, emotional violence and economic violence. Forms of physical violence include injury-producing physical contact, denial of access to medical care for an injured partner, and forced use of drugs or alcohol. Forms of sexual violence include rape or other forms of sexual attack and sexual degradation. Forms of psychological violence include threats of harm or other forms of intimidation, enforced social isolation, purposeful damage to property and purposeful violence against pets. Forms of emotional violence include name-calling or other demeaning behaviors and purposeful disruption of the relationship between parent and child. Forms of economic domestic violence include prevention of access to finances or financial planning and prevention of access to work or school opportunities.

All but 15 percent of the domestic violence in the U.S. is perpetrated against women, according to figures compiled by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. However, this figure may actually be an underrepresentation, since many victims of intimate partner violence fail to report their partners to the police or other legal authorities. In addition to its obvious impact in terms of rape, homicide and other physical or sexual crimes, domestic violence has a range of lesser-known, major consequences. For instance, the U.S. economy loses billions of dollars each year as a result of domestic violence-related medical costs and diminished productivity. In addition, male children exposed to their parents’ violent intimate relationships engage in similar or identical behaviors during adulthood fully 100 percent more often than boys not exposed to domestic violence.

Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Depression

In the study published in PLOS Medicine, an international research team reanalyzed the results of 16 previous studies that examined the links between exposure to domestic violence and risks for forms of depression called major depression (major depressive disorder) and dysthymia (now known in the U.S. as persistent depressive disorder). These studies also examined the links between domestic violence exposure and relatively minor depression symptoms that don’t qualify for a major depression or persistent depressive disorder diagnosis. Altogether, the 16 studies included over 36,000 people. All of the studies included women, and a quarter of the studies also included male participants.

As expected by the study’s authors, their analysis showed that women exposed to domestic violence develop depression-related symptoms significantly more often than women not exposed to such violence. However, unexpectedly, the authors concluded that women already affected by depression symptoms have a significantly greater chance of going on to experience some form of domestic violence in the future. The men in the reexamined studies also experienced meaningful increases in their depression levels when they were targeted by domestic violence. However, men already affected by depression did not experience a subsequent increase in their domestic violence-related risks.


The authors of the study in PLOS Medicine also used their compiled data to examine the connection between domestic violence exposure and increased risks for suicide. They concluded that women targeted by domestic violence have substantially increased chances of making a suicide attempt, while men targeted by domestic violence don’t. The authors believe that their findings identify real connections between domestic violence, depression and suicide risks, especially those associated with women. However, they note that a relative lack of men in the studies they examined may alter or skew the results of their research. Taking this possibility into account, they still feel that their findings support the secondary use of domestic violence prevention as a way to reduce the rates for both depression and suicide. They also believe that their findings support the recording of domestic violence histories as part of the larger effort to gauge depression and suicide risks in women patients.


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