For each NHL player who suffers a concussion during the hockey season, approximately 7,000 Canadian women suffer the same injury due to intimate violence, University of British Columbia Okanagan Professor Paul van Donkelaar said.
This staggering statistic came as a surprise to the health and exercise science professor who spent most of his career focusing on the effects of sport concussions on brain function.
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Van Donkelaar and his partner—both in research and in life—executive director of Kelowna’s Women’s Shelter Karen Mason, began to investigate the incidents and characteristics of brain injuries resulting from gender-based violence in order to better serve women in Kelowna and countrywide. Their research project is called Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury, or SOAR.
Now, with the announcement of a $1-million grant from Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr on Friday at the campus, they can expand their research over the course of five years to implement tangible practises to better support for survivors and affected families.
“Ending gender-based violence is crucial if we’re serious about giving everyone the same opportunities,” he said at the announcement on campus.
“This ($1-million grant) will fund a unique research collaboration studying traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in women who have experienced violence and abuse at the hands of an intimate partner.”
The study measures a variety of physiological changes including blood flow or inflammation in the brain to better understand brain dysfunction in survivors of intimate partner violence. The team also assess survivors for emotional disturbances.
“Unlike with most young athletes who suffer a concussion, victims of intimate partner violence often experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, so it’s important to measure and account for these factors in the research,” van Donkelaar said.
More than 6,000 women take refuge in a shelter like the Kelowna Women’s Shelter, the executive director Karen Mason said.
“Through this research, we’ve found most of these women have experienced a traumatic brain injury,” Mason said.
“When you consider that most physical violence that occurs in the home consists of blows to the face, head and neck, and strangulation and it makes sense.”
Mason said TBIs are not something often considered in serving women who have experienced violence.
“Yet, the challenges a traumatic brain injury can add to a woman that is already devastated by trauma are huge and make moving forward into a life free of abuse even harder,” Mason said.
Women who suffer from TBIs may also suffer from its symptoms, including chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating and more.
Often undiagnosed, TBIs and its symptoms may make a woman, especially one using a shelter, appear problematic or “difficult,” Mason said.
With the federal government grant money, SOAR will continue its research and through its community partnerships with the Women’s Shelter, resources will be created to both educate and train other frontline staff workers who provide care for survivors of intimate partner violent-caused traumatic brain injuries.
“If we’re going to train staff at women-supporting organizations to identify signs of brain injury in their clients, and take a TBI-informed approach to their work, it’s critical we also identify, and can refer those clients to the help they need, whether it’s medical care, psychological counselling or life-skills tools,” Mason said.
“Ultimately the goal of this work is to improve the long-term health and well being of women affected by intimate violence,” van Donkelaar said.