Thursday’s Topic Thursday segment on Facebook addressed a topic that mental health clinician Crystal Johnson believes “needs to be continuously highlighted” for effective change to occur—Domestic Violence.
In a press conference April 9, 2020, Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith shared data confirming increased rates of domestic violence.
He highlighted that the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) received 39 reports of “assaults by beating” in 2019, and in February 2020, that figure had climbed to 73. Similarly, in March 2019, reports of domestic violence numbered 42; in March 2020, there were 96.
All told, Griffith reported a rise in domestic violence cases from 232 in 2019 to 558 in 2020.
Commenting on this, Johnson of the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission (AFLC) remarked “That’s a big jump …it feels like it’s every other week we’re hearing about a victim or a murder coming out of domestic violence cases. It is really worrying at this time.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s Domestic Violence Act of 1999 defines domestic violence as an act whereby physical, sexual, emotional, psychological or even financial abuse is committed by a person against a married or common-law spouse, or child or any other person who is a member of the household or dependant.
Domestic violence usually occurs when a person is “consistently aiming” to control their partner through physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. This, Johnson said, may include behaviours that really “scare” the victim. Control, she stressed, is the “basis” of this behaviour.
“It’s not always easy to determine in the early stages of a relationship if one person will become abusive. Domestic violence tends to intensify over time. Abusers may seem really wonderful and perfect initially…. but gradually what happens is that they become more aggressive and the controlling in the relationship continues,” Johnson explained.
She observed a “clever” tactic with abusers is that after they exhibit the abuse they tend to “apologise profusely” and convince their victim that it was done out of love. “However, violence and control always intensify over time with an abuser despite the apologies,” Johnson stressed.
“Harmless” requests such as the perpetrator wanting the victim to spend all their time with the perpetrator, escalating extreme control and abuse, threatening to kill or hurt the victim if they speak to family or friends, emotional and economic abuse and sexual coercion all constitute domestic violence.
Some perpetrators use children, pets, family members and finances as emotional leverage to get their victim to do what they want.
Johnson observed victims of domestic violence experience diminished self-worth, anxiety, depression, and a general sense of helplessness that can take time to overcome.
How to spot an abusive partner
Abusers aren’t easy to spot. In public they may seem smart, trustworthy, and charming. However, in private, the perpetrator can be a “nightmare”, Johnson said. She said many abusers learn violence from their family and repeat the toxic patterns with their own partner or children. They are more likely to have some substance abuse problems.
Heterosexual male abusers are prone to jealousy—accusing their partner of cheating sometimes, without any reason—and even stalking.
According to Johnson, abusive partners often isolate their victims from their own families, friends, or other sources of support.
“Because if anybody knows then the light is shone upon them. Domestic violence thrives off isolation,” she stressed.
One of the more “concerning signs” of domestic violence, Johnson highlighted is strangulation. She said studies have found that abuse involving strangulation is one of the strongest predictors of attempting or completing a murder.
How does domestic abuse impact victims?
According to Johnson, it can take some time before victims of domestic violence recognise their situation “for what it is”.
“When you go through the insults or physical beatings or whatever may be occurring, the game of apologies and being very loving afterwards, it paints a picture too for one to hold on that there’s goodness there. He loves me, he’s doing this for me, he loves our family, and it’s a really kind of interesting way in how that back-and-forth behaviour can really confuse someone that they may not even recognise that they are a domestic violence victim,” Johnson said.
While abuse often leaves physical marks, bruises and broken bones, it can also manifest into long-term emotional and psychological effects such as shortness of breath, involuntary shaking, feelings of confusion, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Why do women stay?
Johnson maintained that identifying the pattern of abuse and deciding to leave the abusive relationship is “exceptionally challenging” both emotionally and practically. She revealed that she is a “bit bewildered” when persons ask, ‘Why did she stay?’.
“I think the next time when you hear a story and that pops up, I want you to pause a second and ask yourself if you really know her story. Do you know the ins and outs of her circumstance? Do you know the cards she’s been dealt? Because not everyone is dealt an easy hand of cards in life,” she said.
She mentioned a few of those barriers include wrongfully believing that they are responsible for bringing the abuse— ‘I deserve to be punished’—, the stigma and the shame associated with domestic violence, holding on to hope that things will improve.
Family and social expectations may also contribute to this especially when children are involved. Johnson commented that in some cases families are aware of the abuse and do not help.
How can society help domestic violence survivors?
Johnson said society ought to empower domestic violence survivors rather than stigmatise them. Directing them to supportive resources is also critical. She suggested that mental health care should be affordable and accessible to survivors. A component where workplaces can create policies to protect and support employees who are domestic violence victims was also suggested.
“.…we have to start caring about what is going on with our brothers and sisters. Even the perpetrators need help and counselling and intervention,” Johnson said.
If you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is struggling to leave, please seek the assistance of the Trinidad and Tobago Gender Based Violence Unit by calling 999 or reporting directly to the TTPS app, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-SAVE or the Coalition Against Domestic Violence at 624-0402.
By Kaelanne Jordan