Intimate partner violence victims show symptoms of traumatic brain injury

Initial results of a new study out of UBC Okanagan show links between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injuries.

UBC Okanagan researchers compared their findings to sports concussion studies

UBC Okanagan partnered with the Kelowna Women's Shelter and the Elizabeth Fry Society to research traumatic brain injury in women who have experienced violence. (Shutterstock)

Early results from a new study out of the University of British Columbia Okanagan show links between intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers found that people suffering abuse in violent relationships can exhibit more severe brain injury symptoms than athletes who suffer acute concussions.

Forty women who accessed the Kelowna Women's Shelter or the Elizabeth Fry Society Central Okanagan were surveyed and tested for symptoms of brain trauma like dizziness, trouble concentrating, sensory-motor and cognitive functions.

"The amazing thing is with athletes, we're measuring them within three days of the injury. The average time after the survivors of intimate partner violence are being tested is three years," said Paul Van Donkelaar, associate vice principal of research at UBC Okanagan.

"These symptoms are absolutely lingering and they're due to chronic head impacts."

Low rates of reporting abuse

He said one challenge with collecting data on this subject matter is that people with these injuries must report them themselves. As Karen Mason, executive director of the Kelowna women's shelter noted, abuse reports are rare.

Between 2009 and 2014, 342,000 women in Canada reported that they were victims of intimate partner violence, but research shows that up to 70 per cent of abuse victims never report to police, suggesting the number is much higher, according to a recent study by Women's Shelters Canada. 

Mason said many of the women she serves probably don't know they may be suffering some kind of brain injury because the abuse they're experiencing is their norm.

"It might not even cross their mind that the fact that they've been shoved up against the wall umpteen times during this relationship could potentially have caused a concussion or brain injury," she told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

Post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression are common in the women who access services. Mason said some show other troubling symptoms. For example, some women have difficulty achieving goals or demonstrated other types of negative behaviour that may be signs of a brain injury.

"We might be dealing with women with deficits directly related to a concussion… but we don't know. Even if we did, we don't have any kind of network."

Education and referral networks

That's the next step for Van Donkelaar's research — translating the information into interventions or supports, as well as a creating a referral network for frontline workers to use when dealing with women who present symptoms.

Mason has found that the women who have participated in the study are more hopeful that help is possible.

"One of the most powerful things that's come out of this research… is that a lot of women had no clue they might have a brain injury.

"They thought they just couldn't figure stuff out, they had a terrible memory, and that really ties into the lack of self esteem and belief in themselves that is really entrenched after being in an abusive relationship."

"It gives them a new sense of hope that they can move forward."

With files from Daybreak South

To hear the full interviews listen to media below:

Paul Van Donkelaar, associate vice principal of research at UBC Okanagan, and Karen Mason, executive director of the Kelowna women's shelter on new findings about traumatic brain injury in women who have experienced violence 15:19

Read more from CBC British Columbia