UBCO is helping women suffering from traumatic brain injuries

Treating intimate violence

UBC Okanagan is working towards establishing better support for woman survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV), in hopes of identifying traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in the earlier stages.

It's no secret that sport related concussions have been thoroughly researched but a new UBCO study is focused on the understudied group of IPV.

Paul van Donkelaar is the lead researcher and professor with the School of Health and Exercise Sciences who hopes this study will improve services such as women's shelters.

“It is widely known survivors of intimate partner violence face many short and long-term consequences from abuse which can have profound impacts on both their mental and physical health,” said van Donkelaar.

“But there is currently very little direct evidence for the potential link between this violence and traumatic brain injury-induced brain dysfunction.”

Van Donkelaar says there is an abundance of research around sport related brain injuries but these injuries are largely ignored when it comes to survivors of IPV.

His study focused on this issue is only the fourth study ever conducted.

“IPV happens behind closed doors and usually there are no witnesses—if there are witnesses they are generally the children and they are traumatized,” said van Donkelaar. He believes when a survivor doesn't seek medical attention it is often because of other traumatic injuries.

“In many cases, survivors of IPV don’t necessarily know they have had a traumatic brain injury and yet they are suffering from chronic symptoms including headaches, dizziness, and difficulty remembering,” he added.

“If a brain injury is diagnosed, it might be several months or even years after the initial damaging blow took place. And was it caused by one blow, multiple attacks over several months, or from being shaken or even strangled?”

In addition to the issue of diagnosis there is also a stigma related to IPV which is why many woman who do seek medical attention may lie about how they were injured.

These reasons are why van Denkelaar and his team including former UBCO postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Smirl are working to make assessments and care accessible for survivors of IPV.

“Although the health care system is a good place for TBI diagnoses in the context of IPV, many survivors do not feel comfortable accessing care in this manner so this leaves staff at women shelters as the first line of defence,” said Smirl.

“Yet these staff members aren’t necessarily aware TBI can be part of their client’s experience and currently do not have appropriate screening tools available to them.”

Eighteen women who have experienced IPV took part in the teams study where two questionnaires were conducted.

The study then determined that all participants had suffered at least one TBI and most women had suffered from multiple.

“It’s estimated that several hundred thousand Canadian women a year experience a TBI, an even greater number than hockey or football players,” sayid Smirl. “And yet, due to the perceived stigma around IPV, many of these women don’t seek medical support."

"Unfortunately, living in this situation is their normal, waking up in a daze because she was punched again is her normal. Not only is it going undiagnosed, it’s going untreated.”

These findings will help develop screening tools that are vital to help front-line staff working in women's shelters.

“What we’re hoping to do is implement a simple informed screening tool, just a few questions that front-line staff can ask which can help reveal whether a woman has potentially experienced an IPV-related TBI,” said Smirl.

“We will then be able to use it as a means to refer them to appropriate supports in the community.”

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