Halina Haag

Haag wants to help survivors who acquired brain injuries after an abusive relationship adapt to life after the traumatic events. (Courtesy of Halina Haag)

More domestic violence survivors may be suffering from traumatic brain injuries than we know, says Halina Haag, a researcher from Wilfrid Laurier University's faculty of social work.

Haag is a doctoral student at the university who received the 2017-2018 Ontario Women's Health Scholars Award for her work with women survivors of domestic violence and their resulting traumatic brain injuries.

"We know that this is a very real risk, we also know that women likely undergo at least 30 episodes of violence before they contact the police," she said, "So this is often an ongoing, long-term situation, and they're being exposed to repeated violence."

There has been increasing awareness of sports-related concussions. However, Haag pointed out that people aren't making the connection that victims of domestic violence also may be suffering lasting physical damage in their brains.

Damage to the brain can result in a loss of executive functions, which includes ability to process information, memory, ability to multi-task, planning and the ability to read emotion on another person's face.

"The bruises and cuts heal, and what happens is people assume that once that [visible] damage is healed, there's no lasting impact," she said.

Concrete data missing

Making the connection between domestic violence and brain injuries can be difficult when there is little data. There are no concrete statistics for the percentage of survivors who suffer from traumatic brain injuries as a result of intimate-partner violence.

She estimates anywhere between 35 to 80 per cent women survivors have head injuries from intimate-partner violence. She said over the past 20 years, there have only been 20 studies worldwide that looked at brain injuries in this context.

"What we do know is that 92 per cent of all violent encounters in this context include hits to the head, face and neck, including strangulation," Haag said.

Few tools for frontline workers

She said it's hard to get the data partly because people who directly interact with victims on frontlines are not screening for cognitive damages.

"We also have a situation where we don't have specific diagnostic tools," she said.

Part of Haag's research is addressing the lack of resources for frontline workers in screening and diagnosis. She will be developing a preliminary toolkit for shelter workers in Toronto, Ont. and Victoria, B.C.

Haag said the toolkit will help educate the workers on the injuries and how they can adapt existing services for victims.

"We can't just walk in with the standard set of questions and the standard approach that we would use with a football player," she said. "It's a slow process, it's really in its infancy right now."