Laurier researcher finds COVID-19 has increased the correlation between intimate partner violence and brain injury

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of assault and relationship violence.

A new study by researcher and Ph.D. candidate Halina (Lin) Haag found the risk of brain injury resulting from intimate partner violence (IPV) has drastically increased in rates and severity since the beginning of the pandemic.

Haag has worked at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work for 11 years. She has focused her research on survivors exposed to intimate partner violence over the last seven years.

“I started looking into the challenges women are facing because of my own experience with brain injury and the gaps in the training of professional capacity around this particular interest. I started working to see if there were pathways forward to address those gaps with frontline workers and their ability to support women survivors,” Haag said.

With the beginning of COVID-19 taking place around the time of her dissertation work, Haag was able to add questions into her research about how the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions affected the rates of IPV and brain injury.

“We did our interviews in the first lockdown in April and May of 2020, so we were getting very new and up to the minute information from our participants,” she said.

Compared to statistics before COVID-19, the rate of intimate partner violence causing traumatic brain injury has gone up 20 to 25 per cent globally, according to the World Health Organization.

“Those of us in the field knew that there would be an increase, but a number of us, myself included, were shocked by how fast and high that increase hit. It’s concerning because we know the likelihood of a brain injury resulting from physical assault is very, very, high,” Haag said. 

The increase poses many challenges for the medical community and women survivors.

“This group is unique from the brain injury perspective as they’re far less likely to be seeking medical care immediately post-injury. They may be prevented from seeking that care because their safety and life depend on not seeking it, and they tend to be overlooked when they do seek it. I still hear from survivors all the time saying, ‘nobody ever asked me’,” she said. 

It is difficult for survivors to receive the help they need for these reasons.

“The challenge is that up until very recently, the intersection itself was not well known.

Everyone looks at the surface damage and figures that once the bruises fade and the broken bones heal, the patient has recovered––nobody is looking for a permanent or long-term problem, like a brain injury. The medical profession isn’t looking, the frontline workers aren’t looking, and the survivors aren’t looking,” Haag said.

Expressed concern for women survivors living with an undiagnosed brain injury has propelled researchers in the area to put increased effort into bringing awareness to this issue.

“It’s important that as a society, we stop looking at intimate partner violence as a personalized issue. We tend to shame and blame a lot: why doesn’t she leave? Why doesn’t she stay? Why did she get herself into this problem in the first place?,” she said.

“All kinds of social judgments are brought down. This is a public health concern, and it needs to be recognized and approached as such.”

Additionally, Haag suggests we need a different way of looking at intimate partner violence and traumatic brain injury to bring this issue to the forefront. 

“The rates of traumatic brain injury are as high as breast cancer for women in Canada. So we have approximately one in eight Canadian women walking around with undiagnosed and unsupported traumatic brain injury due to intimate partner violence. If you think about the way that we approach breast cancer––the money for research, the available support, the lack of stigmatization––that’s where I want to see this issue go,” Haag said.

To create more awareness on the issue of IPV and traumatic brain injury is through education.
“We have developed an education resource called the “Abused and Brain Injured Tool Kit” at .We designed it for frontline workers and women survivors, but lots of folks can use it––it’s something tangible we can offer,” she said.

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