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 woman

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.

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.

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

Just Posted

Rescue crews search for a missing diver in Okanagan Lake at Hot Sands Beach by the William R. Bennett Bridge on Sunday, May 16. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Missing Okanagan Lake diver presumed drowned, recovery efforts continue

Boaters are asked to stay away from the area as crews continue the search

(Lindsey Roche/Contributed)
Kelowna children enjoy drive-in movie thanks to support from the community

A daycare in the Mission area gets creative during the COVID-19 pandemic

File photo (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Overturned kayak in Mission Creek prompts police response

Kelowna RCMP is looking to speak with anyone who may know the individual associated with the kayak

A drug bust on Government Street in Duncan on Tuesday, March 30, led to a "substantial seizure" according to the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP. (File photo)
Search continues for diver who went missing in Okanagan Lake

Search and rescue, RCMP underwater recovery team looking for diver missing since Saturday afternoon

Rutland Senior Secondary (Barry Gerding/Black Press)
UPDATE: List of Kelowna school COVID-19 exposures expands

School District 23 says two more schools have been exposed to the virus

An avalanche near Highway 1 in Glacier National Park. Avalanche Canada will benefit from a $10 million grant from the B.C. government. (Photo by Parks Canada)
Avalanche Canada receives $10 million grant from B.C. government

Long sought-after funds to bolster organization’s important work

Fate, an American cocker spaniel bred at Lavington’s Aladdin Cockers by Carol and Robin Edwards, is currently the No. 1 ranked cocker spaniel in the U.S. and has drawn an invitation to the world’s most famous dog show, the Westminster Kennel Club event in New York, next month. (Photo submitted)
Okanagan-bred cocker spaniel to strut stuff at Westminster Kennel Club

Fate, an American cocker spaniel bred by Lavington’s Aladdin Cockers, is ranked No. 1 in the U.S.

KCR Migrant Support Worker, Javier, had an exciting day escorting his son Ian with him during ‘Take your Child to Work Day’!
KCR: Volunteering is being part of a whole

KCR Community Resources shares stories of its volunteers in a weekly column

Conservation Service Officer Kyle Bueckert holds a gold eagle that was revived from acute rodent poisoning Monday, May 12. Photo: Submitted
‘Obviously, he’s a fighter’: Golden eagle, recovered from poisoning, back in Kootenay wild

CSO Kyle Bueckert released the eagle into the wild Thursday, May 13

A fledgling white raven was spotted near the end of Winchester Road in Coombs. (Mike Yip photo)
Legend continues as iconic white raven spotted once again on Vancouver Island

Sightings rare everywhere in world except for central Vancouver Island location

Capt. Jenn Casey died in a crash just outside of Kamloops, B.C., on May 17, 2020. (CF Snowbirds)
Snowbirds to honour Capt. Casey, who died in B.C. crash, in 2021 tour

Tour will kick off in Ontario in June before heading west

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

This bird box at the Salmon Arm Foreshore lies broken on May 14, 2021 after someone pulled the pole out of the ground and smashed the formerly occupied nest. It was one of more than 30 that have been wrecked. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)
Destruction of nests, birds at Salmon Arm foreshore described as horrifying

More than 30 bird boxes made by community destroyed, just one was not occupied

Ranchero resident Cody Krabbendam proudly displays the Lifesaving Society awards he recently received for a rescuing another boy while swimming at Sicamous Beach in July 2020. (Contributed)
Shuswap boy receives medal of bravery, scholarship for rescue at Sicamous beach

Last summer Cody Krabbendam jumped into the lake to save another boy from drowning

Most Read