Responding to Trauma, Mental Health, and Substance Use in the Domestic Violence Field
Survivor-led advocacy starts with meeting people where they are while being prepared to offer holistic support that is inclusive for survivors experiencing trauma, mental health, and substance use. The trauma of domestic and sexual violence (DSV) can impact a survivor’s mental health and substance use; survivors who experience these traumatic effects then face increased targeting, abuse, and victimization by (ex-)partners. Given the complex interconnections between DSV, trauma, substance use, and emotional distress, it is essential that DSV programs and advocates are prepared to offer relevant and affirming support for survivors who experience these traumatic effects of abuse, as well as their families.
Coercion Related to Mental Health and Substance Use in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence
Real Tools: Responding to Multi-Abuse Trauma – A Tool Kit to Help Advocates and Community Partners Better Serve People With Multiple Issues
Committed to Safety for ALL Survivors: Guidance for Domestic Violence Programs on Supporting Survivors Who Use Substances
Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Substance Use
Mental Health Coercion and Substance Use Coercion
In addition to traumatic physical and emotional effects of abuse, many survivors experience coercive tactics specifically related to their mental health or use of substances as part of a broader pattern of abuse and control. For example:
- While a survivor may use substances to cope with trauma, a partner (or ex-partner) may also force a survivor to use substances or threaten withdrawal in an attempt to exert control and isolate them from sources of safety.
- Substance use coercion tactics can be used to threaten and isolate a survivor even when a survivor is not using substances, such as planting substances in a survivor’s home and then threatening to call child protective services, creating risks for both the survivor and their children.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting, a common form of mental health coercion, is the intentional undermining of an individual’s sense of being able to trust what they know to be true (i.e. their sanity), which is then used to exert further power and control over the person. According to research by NCDVTMH and the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
- 86% of hotline callers reported that their partner had called them “crazy”
- 74% said their partner deliberately made them feel like they were “losing their mind”
- 49% of callers who sought mental health support said their partner tried to prevent them from seeking help or taking prescribed medicine
- 50% said their partner threatened to report their “craziness”
Mental health coercion and substance use coercion not only target a person’s well-being, but also their access to desired recovery resources, including treatment and peer support.
How Can DV Impact a Person’s Recovery Efforts?
A pair of studies by NCDVTMH and the National Domestic Violence Hotline on mental health and substance use coercion found disturbingly high rates of abuse specifically targeting a partner’s recovery efforts. Callers reported that (ex-)partners:
- Intentionally undermined their sanity
- Coerced them into using substances
- Prevented them from accessing treatment
- Controlled their medication.
- Sabotaged their recovery efforts
- Used their mental health or substance use “condition” to discredit them with friends, family, helping professionals, faith leaders, law enforcement, and the courts
At the same time, experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder places people at greater risk of being controlled by an abusive partner. Stigma associated with substance use and mental health conditions contributes to the efficacy of these abusive tactics and creates additional barriers for survivors and their families when they try to seek help.
Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Substance Use (2014)
Substance Use, Trauma, and DV Exercises for Children and their Parents (2013)
Exercises for Grounding, Emotional Regulation, and Relaxation for Children and their Families