The Current

New campaign sheds light on 'invisible' crisis of concussions and domestic violence

A new campaign from the YWCA in Vancouver is highlighting a hidden epidemic: women suffering from concussions after being physically assaulted by their partners.

For every NHL concussion, thousands of Canadian IPV survivors go through something similar, says campaign

A photo of a woman holding her head in her hands.
A new campaign launched by the YWCA Metro Vancouver, in partnership with former NHL player Trevor Linden, says it estimates that for every NHL concussion, thousands of women in Canada suffer the same injury because of intimate partner violence. (Photo Illustration/CBC News)

It's been five years since Rachel was violently abused and concussed by her ex-husband, but she still feels the effects of his assault today.

"The first 12 weeks were the worst, and then I had a relapse about six months later," said Rachel, whose real name CBC is protecting for privacy and safety reasons.

"But at this point, I have some issues that are post-concussive syndrome that … don't show any signs of improving," she told The Current guest host Mark Kelley.

She says she has accommodations at work to help her through her day-to-day, special glasses to deal with light sensitivity, and was even able to see a neurologist to help her through recovery.

But while she's grateful for the support, she wonders if earlier intervention would've helped her deal with her concussion better.

"Even getting into a neurologist was something I had to specifically ask for through my doctor," she said. "And it was something that still took three months before I could even get into them.

"Certainly, that's something I imagine that elite athletes have access to…. For me, I didn't get into a lot of those specialists and the ones I did see it was several months later."

That comparison is at the heart of a new public awareness campaign launched by the YWCA Metro Vancouver, in partnership with former NHL player Trevor Linden.

The YWCA says it estimates that for every NHL concussion, thousands of women in Canada suffer the same injury because of intimate partner violence.

The campaign launched Tuesday, in the midst of Victims and Survivors of Crime Week and just days before the start of the 2023 NHL conference finals.

I think, as a society, we don't want to admit that this is happening at the levels it's happening.-Karen Mason, co-founder of SOAR

Karen Mason is the co-founder and director of community practice for SOAR, a multi-disciplinary, research program that explores the incidence and effects of brain injury in women survivors of intimate partner violence. 

She says it's been remarkable to see the reaction to the YWCA's campaign, but it's "horrifying that we haven't cared about it or done anything about it until now," given the statistics.

"I think, as a society, we don't want to admit that this is happening at the levels it's happening," she told Kelley.

"We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to believe that men who love their partners are beating and abusing their partners."

The 'invisible' crisis

Although most people who suffer from concussions recover within a few weeks, Mason said about 15 to 30 per cent will experience ongoing and chronic issues such as memory problems and sleep issues.

But, this percentage could be higher among women who've been victims of intimate partner violence.

"It's often the case that they haven't just experienced one concussion or one experience of brain injury from strangulation," she said. "They've experienced multiple, often over the course of weeks or months or years."

LISTEN: How intimate partner violence creates traumatic brain injury

She said survivors of intimate partner violence often deal with "multiple layers of implications" that can create challenges in their own personal and professional lives.

"If you're a single parent — which many of these women are — trying to parent your kids, trying to function, trying to keep a job, maintain safe housing, it is an invisible public health crisis," she said.

This is especially difficult to manage given the lack of structures and systems in place to assist survivors with navigating post-concussive symptoms.

"We have all kinds of service providers who are supposed to be the first point of contact for women — whether it's paramedics, police officers, emergency room physicians and forensic nurses — who may never have been educated in this, who aren't looking for it," she said.

Watch | 4 women warn others about their alleged abuser

4 women’s efforts to warn others about their alleged abuser

2 months ago
Duration 3:08
Warning: This video contains distressing details | Four women who share the same ex who they say abused them say they are speaking out to warn others about him because the justice system won’t.

There's such a lack of education on this topic that the possibility of concussions in survivors had even eluded Mason at times, despite working with survivors for years.

"The notion that the women we were serving had very likely experienced concussions and other brain injuries, from blows to the head, face and neck and from strangulation, was just not something that had come to mind," she said.

Changing for survivors' sake

Rachel says she often tries to find the silver lining in her life, "otherwise it's too easy to spiral." But, she said she'd like to see change so that survivors like her don't have to feel "lucky" with the minimal support they get.

"I mean, all within one evening, my life got completely turned upside down. I couldn't set foot in that house again. I was lucky I had somewhere to go. Others need to rely on shelters and whatnot."

Produced by Ines Colabrese.


Mouhamad Rachini is a Canadian-Lebanese writer and producer for CBC Radio's digital team. He's worked for several CBC Radio shows including The Current, Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He's particularly passionate about stories from Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. He also writes about soccer on his website Between the Sticks. You can reach him at