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

The Quesnel Fire Hall located at 310 Kinchant St. needs improvement. Quesnel council approved applying for a grant to cover the costs. (File Photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)
Quesnel’s $12 million capital plan not just about gold pan

While conversation surrounding the monument’s location dominated council, other projects were funded

Leah Stump was elected chief of Nazko First Nation on Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo submitted)
Nazko chief hopes to lead by example

Checkpoints around the First Nation look to prevent COVID-19 from entering the vulnerable community

Brett Alexander Jones is wanted on several warrants province-wide, in connection with multiple charges. Jan. 21, 2021. Kitimat RCMP photo
Kitimat RCMP searching for man wanted on several warrants province-wide

Jones is described as a five-foot 10-inches Caucasian man, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Sonja Maas, who lives in Germany, was inspired to draw the 2021 Gold Rush Sled Dog Mail Run art after spending time in Quesnel working with a musher in 2020. (Submitted Photo)
Sled dog mail run artist inspired by 2020 event

Sonja Maas lives in Germany, and spent the 2020 sled dog run in Quesnel with a musher

Interior Health has declared the Cariboo Chilcotin a community cluster. (Angie Mindus photo)
Interior Health declares Cariboo Chilcotin region a COVID-19 cluster, 215 cases since Jan. 1

Most cases are related to transmission at social events and gatherings in Williams Lake

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Jan. 21 marks the 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century, according to some. (Black Press Media file photo)
The 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century is upon us

Milestone won’t be back for another 100 years

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

The top part of the fossil burrow, seen from the side, with feathery lines from the disturbance of the soil – thought to be caused by the worm pulling prey into the burrow. (Paleoenvironntal Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University)
PHOTOS: SFU researchers find evidence of ‘giant’ predatory worms on ocean floor

Fossils found the prove the existence of an ancient Taiwanese worm as long as two metres

Most Read