A new program wants to address incidents of domestic violence in the North Okanagan. - FanPop photo

A new program wants to address incidents of domestic violence in the North Okanagan. - FanPop photo

Brain injury from domestic abuse a ‘public health crisis,’ says B.C. researcher

Nearly 80% of the domestic violence victims who reported to police last year were women

A British Columbia mother in her late 30s says there was “no support in sight” after she suffered two serious blows to the head at the hands of different partners more than a decade ago.

“I was exhausted. I had to quit my job because I couldn’t get up,” said the woman, whose name is not being used because she is separated from her child’s father and fears for her family’s safety.

“My head hurt so badly. I wasn’t able to focus. I felt really down on myself because I didn’t know why I couldn’t function properly.”

The mother said it would have been “life changing” if first responders, hospital staff and even family members had been aware of the effects of a potential brain injury from domestic violence and offered her support accordingly.

“I had no understanding that my brain was not working properly,” she said, adding that she did not have trouble focusing, managing her time or multitasking before the first violent incident.

“It’s been hell to figure it out on my own.”

She said learning about the effects of a brain injury helped her overcome the shame she felt after the two blows, which happened several years apart when she was in her 20s.

She sets timers and reminders on her phone to help structure her days and she keeps notes handy with ideas for meals and ingredients that sometimes elude her. She has also become certified in yoga and mindfulness, activities she said help her cope with the chronic effects of multiple concussions.

The B.C. mother is a member of an advisory committee for Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research, or SOAR. The organization was founded in 2016 by Karen Mason, the former executive director of the Kelowna Women’s Shelter, and her partner Paul van Donkelaar, a professor in the school of health and exercise sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

Compared with brain injury research being done on athletes, the research involving people who have suffered similar injuries from intimate partner violence is in its infancy, said van Donkelaar.

The silence and stigma shrouding domestic violence mean those who suffer brain injuries are falling through the cracks of what van Donkelaar calls “an unrecognized public-health crisis in Canada.”

Of nearly 96,000 victims of intimate partner violence reported to police in Canada in 2017, 79 per cent were women, according to Statistics Canada.

But spousal and domestic violence is often not reported to police and it’s hard to determine how many survivors might have experienced traumatic brain injury as a result, said van Donkelaar.

Based on research from the U.S., including a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said the prevalence of brain injuries could be anywhere from 30 to more than 90 per cent of all survivors.

READ MORE: Kelowna Women’s Shelter and UBCO team up to study brain injuries in women abused by partners

The SOAR team is assessing women to determine how many may have sustained traumatic brain injuries and the extent to which their symptoms overlap with sports-related concussions.

The researchers use lab-based tests as well as a questionnaire that includes questions like ‘Did you see stars?’ and ‘Did you lose consciousness or have a period where you couldn’t remember things?’

The first results, published recently in the journal Brain Injury, show all 18 women initially recruited through the Kelowna Women’s Shelter reported symptoms consistent with traumatic brain injury. The research is ongoing and van Donkelaar said his team has now assessed about 60 women.

Domestic violence often includes blows to the head, face or neck, as well as strangulation, said van Donkelaar.

“Each of those experiences absolutely have the potential to cause some form of brain injury, similar to what you would see in many collision sports like football or hockey,” he said.

The B.C. mother said her former partner was strangling her when her head smashed against a bedside table as she tried to fight back.

When family members brought her to the hospital, staff seemed “frustrated” that she didn’t remember exactly what happened and she had difficulty speaking coherently, she said. They stitched up the gash in her head, told her she may have a concussion and advised her to rest at home.

The woman did not return to that abusive relationship, but several years later she sustained another serious blow to the head when a different partner threw her out of a moving car.

She doesn’t remember how she got to the hospital, but she had a similar experience with staff at the hospital, where her then-partner urged her not to disclose what happened.

“I remember trying to ask for help and I feel like they treated me like I was intoxicated because I could not speak.”

They gave her an MRI, said she had a concussion, encouraged her to avoid watching television or otherwise straining her eyes and told her she should be fine within a couple of weeks.

In addition to assessments of the cause of the injury and the resulting symptoms, the best predictor of sustaining a concussion is having had one previously, said van Donkelaar.

“Each time, you will be less likely to recover fully,” he said, noting that people who have suffered multiple concussions may end up with chronic symptoms such as dizziness, nausea or difficulty concentrating.

“That can be debilitating and absolutely reduce the quality of life in terms of the ability to hold down a job or go to school or parent your children or interact with colleagues and friends.”

The fear and stigmas that make it difficult for survivors to disclose domestic violence mean that brain injury becomes even more invisible, particularly if there’s a more visible injury, like a broken bone, van Donkelaar said.

In response, SOAR is developing resources to help shelter workers and health-care professionals have conversations with survivors of domestic violence to assess whether they might have a brain injury and refer them to the appropriate support services.

READ MORE: Take a stand on International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women

People with brain injuries often need a range of support services, said Mason, from counselling and parenting help to occupational therapy.

This past summer, the Department of Women and Gender Equality gave $1 million over five years to van Donkelaar and Mason’s work, funding they hope to use to provide training for shelter workers in communities across B.C. next year.

The B.C. mother said she still struggles some days but the knowledge, tools and support she has mean she no longer feels guilty or ashamed.

“I was so upset about why I didn’t feel like myself,” she said.

“Now I’m able to say, ‘Well, there’s a reason I can’t do this,’ and there’s forgiveness.”

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

David Moskowitz file
Wildsight to present webinar on Inland Temperate Rainforest

Join Wildsight next Tuesday, December 1, 2020 for a free webinar on… Continue reading

College of the Rockies Avalanche volleyball coaches (l-r) Bryan Fraser and Cisco Farrero continue to help their players develop their skills, despite the cancellation of competitive play for the 2020 academic year. (Submitted file)
Winter 2021 Avalanche volleyball season cancelled

Pacwest has curtailed competitive play for the winter 2021 semester

Aquatic Centre at Western Financial Place. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
Cranbrook aquafit classes temporarily shut down amid updated COVID-19 rules

All indoor group fitness activities are currently suspended province-wide

Winston Blackmore (left) and James Oler (right) were sentenced on separate charges of polygamy this week in Cranbrook Supreme Court.
No more charges expected in Bountiful investigation, special prosecutor says

Special prosecutor says mandate has ended following review of evidence from Bountiful investigations

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

Most Read