TBI Behaviors Can Hamper Care for Persons in DV Programs

Anxiety and memory loss are both consequences of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and if undiagnosed they can impact the level of care of a person experiencing intimate partner violence. 

A TBI can be caused by suffering a hard impact, or blow, or repeated blows, to the head, strangulation, a fall or other head injury. The connection between domestic violence (DV), or intimate partner violence, and TBI is strong: nearly 75% of domestic violence survivors have a traumatic brain injury as a result of the abuse. 

Educating providers about this link between intimate partner violence and TBI is a critical part of the work being done by the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

Executive Director Anne McDonnell shares this story that illustrates this process. She remembers giving a presentation to a group of folks working in domestic violence programs. 

“I was talking about memory problems and problems with people getting their stuff together and not being able to prioritize and organize and figure out what comes next, and their emotional control issues. And the people working in DV were all nodding their heads. Every single head nodding.  And I said, I bet you think I’m talking about your people. Well, guess what, I’m talking about people with brain injuries. You could just see it all over the room, it was a lightbulb moment.” 

Transferring that realization into positive action has been a process, one helped tremendously by bringing Amy Smith on board as Liaison between the BIAV and the Virginia Dept. of Health specifically working on forging partnerships with DV programs across the state to encourage intake screening for TBI and getting survivors connected with local brain injury resources. Staff education is also a key component, so that clients don’t risk being removed from safe houses because of behavioral challenges. 

“We work towards getting people aware and educated about brain injury and what that means for them, education for the people who are working at the shelters, learning about brain injury and modifications that they can make for cognitive behavioral symptoms, but also getting people connected to the brain injury system of care, if that’s something that they’re interested in,” explains Smith.

Brain injury can cause serious, profound impacts on a person’s ability not only to recover from domestic violence but to assist if possible legal action is attempted. 

McDonnell explains: There is a structure deep inside of the brain called the hippocampus, which is highly associated with memory. It’s also very sensitive to the loss of oxygen. When a person is being strangled, as often happens during a DV situation, the hippocampus is one of the first brain structures to suffer damage. The person’s memory is damaged and their ability to clearly explain what happened to them is damaged as well. 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head trauma, is another main cause of memory loss. Many DV survivors have been caught up in a cycle of abuse, some from the time they were children, vastly increasing the possibility of memory loss due to repeated brain injuries. 

“Raising awareness about these things, through screening and getting people to the brain injury support services they need, is so important. Educating people within agencies so that they understand why for some clients they may have to say the same thing four times, which can be pretty annoying. But if you understand why you need to keep repeating yourself, you can handle it better, you can have compassion and empathy for the person,” explains McDonnell.

For more information about the Brain Injury Association of Virginia, visit: www.biav.net.

If you or someone you know is being impacted by intimate partner violence, help is available! Call the DV and Sexual Assault Hotline @1-800-838-8238.