October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month — 31 days of reflection brought about by years of suffering, survivorship and study that experts say still needs far more attention. Although domestic violence cases involving celebrities, politicians and professional athletes will occasionally trigger calls for action on social media and other platforms, the faces of many lesser-known cases continue to suffer in silence.
Jill Theresa Messing, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, is working to address that silence. Reversing the negative use of technology in intimate partner violence, Messing is working to create a safe space for victims in the technology space of digital applications. She is part of a team that is developing myPlan, a new app designed to help college-age women spot the signs of an abusive relationship — and find their way out.
Highlighting the resulting impact of domestic violence on our communities, Messing recently discussed the efforts and research in play to stem the problem long described as the “quiet epidemic.”
Question: In recent years we have seen increased reports about domestic violence as a public health threat. How do we define domestic violence, and what are some examples of its impact on public health?
ASU: “Domestic violence” is the term generally used by the public and practice communities to refer to violence within intimate partnerships (e.g., people who are dating, in a relationship or have a child together). Violence is generally understood to be physical (e.g., pushing, slapping, hitting) or sexual (e.g., forcing a partner into sexual activity with violence or threats).
Other abusive actions such aname-callingng, put-downs, harassment, stalking, control, jealousy, financial abuse, threats and other behaviors are also considered domestic violence. In the research literature, this form of violence or abuse is often termed gender-based violence or intimate-partner violence.
Intimate-partner violence disproportionately affects women and can lead to physical- and mental-health consequences. In addition to injury that results from violence, intimate-partner violence leads to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance misuse and other negative outcomes. In the most extreme cases, intimate-partner violence escalates to homicide.
Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like is just as important as being able to recognize red flags for abuse. Healthy relationships include mutual respect, safety, open and honest communication, compromise, equality, independence, freedom, support and privacy. Everyone deserves to be in a healthy and safe relationship.
Q: Despite an increase in education and resources for domestic violence, there still seems to be a reluctance on the part of others to get involved or reach out to those who they suspect of being abused. What is the most important thing a person can do if they suspect abuse?
ASU: Friends are often the first to know about abuse. The most important thing that someone can do if they suspect that a friend is being abused is to talk to their friend in a kind, non-judgmental manner. Many people who are being abused would like to talk about it but are scared. Listening to your friend, being supportive, and not telling her/him what to do can be very effective. Ask your friend what you can do to help.
Starting in 2018, ASU’s School of Social Work will also begin offering new degree programs to better educate and equip students with the tools they need to spot and stop domestic violence. Coursework will include focus on technology-based abuse, intimate-partner violence risk assessment, teen dating violence, violence against women in the global context, and the domestic violence social movement. The courses will be offered as part of undergraduate and graduate certificates in domestic violence.
Q: We have heard some of the ways technology has enabled domestic violence (harassment, stalking, etc.), but how is it also playing a role in addressing the issue?
ASU: Technology is an important tool for education and can connect people to helpful community-based resources. I have partnered with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University to develop the myPlan app. Because women are more likely than men to be abused, to suffer injuries due to violence and to be killed by intimate partners, myPlan is for female-identifying students who are in a relationship with a male or female partner.
The app provides the user with a private, safe and non-judgmental space to consider their values and to weigh the risks and benefits of their relationship. It’s tailored to each person’s unique situation and provides a safety plan as well as free and often confidential resources. MyPlan is available for iPhone and Android devices and is completely free. There is also a version for friends. If you think a friend is being abused, myPlan can provide help and advice specific to your friend’s situation. Visit myPlanApp.org to learn more.
Unfortunately, technology is often used to abuse, harass or stalk someone in an abusive relationship, and technology safety is an important aspect of staying safe. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has information about staying safe online. There are also confidential and even anonymous resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Love is Respect that can help.
Q: What is new research telling us about domestic violence?
ASU: Much of my research focuses on the development and use of risk-assessment instruments that provide information about the danger that an abuser poses for a domestic violence victim. Risk assessments can be used for women to assess their own danger or a friend’s danger, or they can be used by practitioners who work with victims or offenders for safety planning. The criminal justice system is increasingly using risk assessments to make determinations about whether a domestic violence offender should be released on bond or the conditions of that release. Some of my current research is developing culturally competent adaptations of a risk assessment for immigrant, refugee and Native American victims of intimate-partner violence.
At ASU, we are also learning from students who are placed in domestic violence agencies across Arizona through our AmeriCorps internship program. Since 2015, 149 AmeriCorps members from various disciplines have volunteered more than 72,000 hours serving vulnerable survivors of domestic violence and their families. The students are getting an opportunity to learn more about domestic violence through hands-on experience while earning a stipend and education credit that they can put toward future tuition or student loans. Members have already earned more than $409,000 in scholarships and educational awards through the AmeriCorps program.