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May 23, 2012

Disasters and Domestic Violence

A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet
Prepared by Fran H. Norris, Georgia State University

Prevalence and Impact of Domestic Violence in the Wake of Disasters

Two questions require attention when considering the implications of domestic violence for postdisaster recovery.

The first question is whether domestic violence increases in prevalence after disasters. There are only minimal data that are relevant to this question. Mechanic et al.1 undertook the most comprehensive examination of intimate violence in the aftermath of a disaster after the 1993 Mid-western flood. A representative sample of 205 women who were either married or cohabitating with men and who were highly exposed to this disaster acknowledged considerable levels of domestic violence and abuse. Over the 9-month period after flood onset, 14% reported at least one act of physical aggression from their partners, 26% reported emotional abuse, 70% verbal abuse, and 86% partner anger. Whether these rates of physical aggression are greater than normal is not known because studies of domestic violence from previous years and under normal conditions have showed the existence of rates of violence as low as 1% and as high as 12%.

A few studies have produced evidence that supports the above. Police reports of domestic violence increased by 46% following the eruption of the Mt. St. Helens volcano2. One year after Hurricane Hugo, marital stress was more prevalent among individuals who had been severely exposed to the hurricane (e.g., life threat, injury) than among individuals who had been less severely exposed or not exposed at all3. Within 6 months after Hurricane Andrew, 22% of adult residents of the stricken area acknowledged having a new conflict with someone in their household4. In a study of people directly exposed to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, 17% of noninjured persons and 42% of persons whose injuries required hospitalization reported troubled interpersonal relationships5.

The second question is whether domestic violence, regardless of the reasons how or why it occurs, influences women's postdisaster recovery. An important finding from Mechanic et al.'s (2001) study was that the presence of domestic violence strongly influenced women's postdisaster mental health. Thirty-nine percent of women who experienced postflood partner abuse developed postflood PTSD compared to 17% of women who did not experience postflood abuse. Fifty-seven percent of women who experienced postflood partner abuse developed postflood major depression compared to 28% of nonabused women. Similarly, Norris and Uhl3 found that as marital stress increased, so too did psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Likewise, Norris et al.4 found that 6 and 30 months after Hurricane Andrew, new conflicts and other socially disruptive events were among the strongest predictors of psychological symptoms.

These findings take on additional significance when it is remembered that not only are women generally at greater risk than men for developing postdisaster psychological problems, but women who are married or cohabitating with men may be at even greater risk than single women6,7. In contrast, married status is often a protective factor for men8,9. It also has been found that the severity of married women's symptoms increases with the severity of their husbands' distress, even after similarities in their exposure have been taken into account7.

In summary, although the research regarding the interplay of disaster and domestic violence is not extensive and little of it has been derived from studies of incidents of mass violence, the available evidence does suggest that services related to domestic violence should be integrated into other mental-health services for disaster-stricken families. Screening for women's safety may be especially important. Helping men find appropriate ways to manage/direct their anger will benefit them and their wives. It will also help their children, as children are highly sensitive to postdisaster conflict and irritability in the family7,10.

Summary of Empirical Findings
  • Although there is little conclusive evidence that domestic violence increases after major disasters, research suggests that its postdisaster prevalence may be substantial.
  • In the most relevant study, 14% of women experienced at least one act of postflood physical aggression and 26% reported postflood emotional abuse over a 9-month period.
  • One study reported a 46% increase in police reports of domestic violence after a disaster.
  • Other studies show that substantial percentages of disaster victims experience marital stress, new conflicts, and troubled interpersonal relationships.
  • There is more-conclusive evidence that domestic violence harms women's abilities to recover from disasters.
  • In the most relevant study, 39% of abused women developed postdisaster PTSD compared to 17% of other women, and 57% of abused women developed postdisaster depression, compared to 28% of other women.
  • Marital stress and conflicts are highly predictive of postdisaster symptoms.
  • In light of the fact that, in general, married women are a high-risk group for developing postdisaster psychological problems, it seems advisable to integrate violence-related screenings and services into programs for women, men, and families.

1.Mechanic, M., Griffin, M., & Resick, P. (2001). The effects of intimate partner abuse on women's psychological adjustment to a major disaster.Manuscript submitted for publication.

2. Adams, P. R., & Adams, G. R. (1984). Mount Saint Helen's ashfall. American Psychologist, 39, 252-260.

3. Norris, F. H., & Uhl, G. A. (1993). Chronic stress as a mediator of acute stress: The case of Hurricane Hugo. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 1263-1284.

4. Norris, F. H., Perilla, J. L., Riad, J. K., Kaniasty, K., & Lavizzo, E. A. (1999). Stability and change in stress, resources, and psychological distress following natural disaster: Findings from Hurricane Andrew. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 12, 363-396.

5. Shariat, S., Mallonee, S., Kruger, E., Farmer, K., & North, C. (1999). A prospective study of long-term health outcomes among Oklahoma City bombing survivors. Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, 92, 178-186.

6. Brooks, N., & McKinlay, W. (1992). Mental health consequences of the Lockerbie disaster. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5, 527-543.

7. Gleser, G. C., Green, B. L., & Winget, C. N. (1981). Prolonged psychological effects of disaster: A study of Buffalo Creek. New York: Academic Press.

8. Fullerton, C.S., Ursano, R.J., Tzu-Cheg, K., & Bharitya, V. R. (1999). Disaster-related bereavement: Acute symptoms and subsequent depression.Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 70, 902-909.

9. Ursano, R. J., Fullerton, C. S., Kao, T. C., & Bhartiya, V. R. (1995). Longitudinal assessment of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression after exposure to traumatic death. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 183, 36-42.

10. Wasserstein, S. B., & LaGreca, A. (1998). Hurricane Andrew: Parent conflict as a moderator of children's adjustment. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Science, 20, 212-224.

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