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Commentary: Why we can’t ignore the connection between domestic violence and addiction

Candles that are part of a violence for domestic violence awareness.
Human Options, an Orange County based nonprofit dedicated to ending the cycle of relationship violence, hosts a walking vigil during Domestic Violence Awareness month in Costa Mesa in October 2022.
(Drew A. Kelley )
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According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million women and men are physically abused by an intimate partner each year. Severe intimate partner violence (a term used for aggression, abuse or stalking that occurs between partners in a romantic relationship), is experienced by one in four women and one in nine men.

Here in California, the rates are even higher with 34.9% of women and 31.1% of men experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) at some point in their lives.

While society has taken steps to raise awareness, support victims/survivors, hold perpetrators accountable and further legislation to promote these goals, so much more must be done to prevent IPV.

By addressing known risk factors for IPV, we can work toward lowering the numbers of those impacted. One risk factor we cannot afford to ignore is substance use. In fact, it is impossible to talk about domestic violence without acknowledging the role that drugs and alcohol play.

Domestic violence and addiction are intertwined in several ways:

1. Heavy drug and alcohol use increases a person’s risk for perpetrating intimate partner violence. Research has found that substance use can impact a person’s ability to control violent impulses. In relationships already marred by IPV, drug and alcohol use can further worsen violent behaviors.

2. Victims of domestic violence may be coerced into using substances by their partners. Illicit drug use may further hinder the willingness or ability of victims to leave their relationships. For example, they may be scared to reach out to law enforcement due to their substance use and may also experience difficulty finding housing or employment due to criminal records or failed drug tests. Even their access to addiction treatment may be limited due to threats or manipulation on the part of their partner. Victims may also blame themselves for violence perpetrated against them because they used drugs or alcohol.

3. A person who is a victim/survivor of domestic violence may use substances to cope with the abuse they are experiencing. Many victims/survivors report using alcohol or other drugs to help them lessen the pain of abuse, and IPV victims are at an increased risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction.

It’s clear that substance use can not only precipitate domestic violence but can arise from it as well. This bidirectional relationship heightens the urgency to include addiction intervention and treatment in domestic violence reduction initiatives. For additional evidence, let’s look to the numbers.

The Orange County Domestic Violence Death Review Team recently published a study of domestic violence deaths in the county between 2006 and 2017.

Substance use disorders have been found to co-occur in 40% to 60% of domestic violence incidents, demonstrating a strong correlation between drug and alcohol use and intimate partner violence. In fact, studies have shown:

· Physical violence is 11 times more likely on days when one or both partners used drugs and alcohol heavily.

· Over 20% of male IPV perpetrators report using drugs or alcohol before the most recent and severe violent acts.

· Victims/survivors of IPV are 70% more likely to drink alcohol excessively than those who have not experienced IPV.

These trends severely and disproportionately impact girls and women, with this population representing 85% of victims/survivors. Not only is IPV associated with depression and suicidal behavior among women, but half of female murder victims are killed by intimate partners. That number is even higher in Orange County with 88% of all IPV homicide victims having identified as female.

The connection between substance use and domestic violence is further illustrated by the findings of a 10-year study the Orange County Domestic Violence Death Review Team released early last year analyzing the county’s domestic violence fatalities. Unsurprisingly, substances were used at the time of the homicide in a notable number of cases, with nearly a quarter involving alcohol, almost one out of five involving illicit drugs, and 14% involving Rx drugs.

The Domestic Violence Fatality Review notes many intimate partner violence cases that resulted in fatal incidents involved mental illness and/or substance misuse and that that the presence of either can represent “missed opportunities for earlier intervention by medical personnel or other professionals.” It’s clear the consequences of not intervening are dire. Those struggling with mental illness and/or addiction are left dangerously at risk in their romantic relationships. It’s imperative that we treat addiction to help lower the rates of domestic violence and prevent future fatalities.

If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, please reach out for help now by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799-SAFE (7233) or going to thehotline.org. Everyone deserves a respectful, healthy relationship.

Laquicha Westervelt is a nurse practitioner at Laguna Treatment Hospital in Orange County.

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