By JOAN COOK
On Jan. 1 a new law went into effect in Ireland, making psychological and emotional abuse in intimate partner relationships a crime. Similar laws are already on the books in France, England, Wales
As American trauma psychologists, we want to jump up and down and applaud such efforts. Though our hands are clapping, our feet won’t let us leave the ground. Why? Because these laws need teeth and backbone. Let us explain.
Psychological abuse has received considerably less empirical and clinical attention than other forms of interpersonal partner violence. Perhaps this is because in the U.S., there are still debates within and among the mental health and legal professions as to its exact definition.
Psychological or emotional abuse can take many forms and can be both overt as well as more nuanced. Overt forms of psychological abuse include intimidation and domineering behavior, such as one partner holding total control of the finances, to restricting one’s ability to engage in social relationships with friends or family members.
Even though the perpetrator may not physically harm the victim, physicality is often involved. This can include witnessing of property destruction, or the perpetrator threatening to harm themselves, if the victim doesn’t comply with their demands.
Subtler types of psychological abuse include hostility and denigration of the victim’s thoughts and behaviors to constant monitoring of their whereabouts. This latter type of abuse is often made that much easier with the advent of smartphones and text-messaging, as well as mobile applications which allow individuals to track someone else’s whereabouts.
Though this may be hard for some to believe, the effects of psychological abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse. Women who experience psychological abuse in intimate partner relationships have a higher risk of depression as well as increased thoughts of harming themselves, compared to those without such histories. In addition, they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, increased substance abuse and negative physical health problems.
Given the high prevalence and detrimental mental and physical health effects of psychological abuse, the new Irish law is a good thing. However, in order to be truly impactful, it must be well-resourced as well as enforced. This seems like the kind of law that could easily not be applied at the individual police level, due to lack of training in how to recognize different types of emotional abuse.
For example, police and other members of law enforcement may not know what to look for and might be hesitant to actual bring charges under this law until the perpetrator has escalated their tactics, as emotional abuse is often a risk factor for later physical violence. This could easily turn into law enforcement not taking psychological abuse seriously, as in, “It’s not abuse unless there are bruises,” “She asked for it,” “He didn’t mean to do it,” and “She’s lying.” Sadly, these are myths about abuse that law enforcement officers and even the general public, may believe.
We certainly don’t mean to be cynical. There are likely many trauma-informed police and law enforcement officers who have a nuanced view of this issue. We worry, though, that such views, even ones less extreme, as well as a lack of related education, could render this law relatively useless.
Research on the prevalence and effects of trauma is large and growing. However, most health care professionals, such as psychologists, still only have a cursory knowledge of this science and little to no formal training in evidence-based psychosocial treatments for trauma-related disorders. How can we expect law enforcement agents to understand and effectively respond to trauma if our nation’s health care providers are still getting up to speed?
One way is to train and support them in the use of trauma-informedpractices. A comprehensive empirically-informed model of trauma-informed knowledge, skills and attitudes that mental health providers working with trauma survivors should possess was developed at an expert consensus conference at Yale University in April 2013.
This model has been adopted as the official education and training policyby the American Psychological Association. It could fairly easily be used as a strong starting point for training law enforcement.
More specifically, law enforcement officers need to be aware of and understand all forms of abuse. This includes the prevalence and types of interpersonal violence as well as common reactions. Officers need to know the best interviewing techniques, ones that are non-invasive, non-accusatory and sensitive. This should not only help the survivor maintain their dignity and reduce trauma-related reactions, but will likely yield far more accurate information and aid potential prosecution.
Bravo to the Emerald Isle for putting into law The Domestic Violence Act 2018. With enough resources for training and support of law enforcement officers, this should help to reduce victim-blaming, enhance accurate identification as well as appropriate response and intervention for those who have survived this pernicious form of interpersonal abuse.
Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Alec Smidt, who also contributed to this article, is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on interpersonal and institutional betrayal trauma, particularly in marginalized communities.
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