Understanding and Resolving The Cycle Of Abuse

Do you find yourself returning to the same abusive relationships time and again or choosing abusive partners over and over?  Do you find yourself returning to your parents all the time seeking advice, guidance, validation, or support, only to be continually disappointed? You likely have poor self-esteem and you are likely quite emotionally vulnerable.  Here’s why and what you can do.


Self-esteem is an outcome of being valued by our parents when we were growing up.  Our self-esteem is actually rooted as far back as our parents’ mate selection.  Hopefully, our parents chose each other believing each possessed the appropriate emotional maturity and practical skills necessary to rear a child.  Beyond that, being valued by our parents is demonstrated by reasonable prenatal care, planning for childbirth, postnatal care, and the ongoing efforts to meet our needs in a caring and loving environment.  As we are consistently and reasonably loved and cared for, we develop a sense of security and value in ourselves.

In the absence of our parents’ emotional investment in us and/or their lack of appropriate care, or worse, our exposure to neglect, abuse, or harm, we may have an incomplete sense of security, value, and worth. In view of an incomplete sense of security, value, and worth, we are insecure and may inadvertently spend considerable time and energies seeking the validation and sense of worthiness we never received.

Further and without a sense of worthiness, we may come to accept relationships and circumstances that unfortunately only contribute to greater worthlessness.  In the face of this greater worthlessness, we may continue to engage in more self-defeating attempts at validation from those incapable of reasonably meeting our needs.  Thus, a conundrum is created in that the more we try to meet our needs through persons less capable of providing for our needs, the more harm befalls us.

The person who has unmet needs to be reasonably valued from before childhood and on may have impaired judgment when it comes to their own mate selection and sources of validation.  These persons require support to endure their insecurity as they learn to set boundaries, discriminate between reasonable and unreasonable partners, and learn to meet their own needs.

By way of example, lack of being valued or validation creates a thirst to quench the dry well of insecurity.

Imagine a woman setting out across the desert with no water. Eventually, she is overcome by the sun’s heat and an increasing thirst. With her clothes in tatters, she pulls herself through the sand looking for an oasis.  In the distance are palm fronds which provides hope to her.  After almost dying of thirst, the spring of hope induces a desire to drag herself to the oasis.

Now at the oasis, she comes across a small shallow pool of liquid. Without thinking and with a need to quickly quench the driving thirst, she submerges her head into the shallow pool and sucks back the liquid. With the thirst barely quenched she can finally taste the liquid from which she seeks relief. At that moment she realizes she is drinking camel urine.

While camel urine may briefly sustain the thirst-quenched person in the desert, it hardly provides for lifelong sustenance. The point of this story, hopefully, will show understandably how vulnerability can lead to self-defeating solutions.

The strategy to overcome these circumstances is to seek new supports typically from agencies or professional persons trained to help people sustain themselves in an emotional drought whilst they learn to take care of themselves and fill their own reservoir in the company of other nurturing individuals who take legitimate interest in others for the sake of the other’s well-being.

If this article rings true for you and you wish to change the direction of your life and circumstance, seek counseling.  You may find that that counseling is best delivered through agencies or individuals who are trained and have a working knowledge in helping people who have been subject to abuse or neglect.

Given a history of abuse where you may not have been appropriately nourished, there are few things as satisfying as learning to nourish yourself to then make more reasonable choices for love and affiliation with other people who themselves are truly caring.

Climate Change Increases Potential for Conflict and Violence

Images of extensive flooding or fire-ravaged communities help us see how climate change is accelerating the severity of natural disasters. The devastation is obvious, but what is not as clear is the indirect effect of these disasters, or more generally of rapid climate change, on violence and aggression.

That is what Craig Anderson sees. The Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of psychology and Andreas Miles-Novelo, an ISU graduate student and lead author, identified three ways climate change will increase the likelihood of violence, based on established models of aggression and violence. Their research is published in the journal Current Climate Change Reports.

Anderson says the first route is the most direct: higher temperatures increase irritability and hostility, which can lead to violence. The other two are more indirect and stem from the effects of climate change on natural disasters, failing crops and economic instability. A natural disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfire, does not directly increase violence, but the economic disruption, displacement of families and strain on natural resources that result are what Anderson finds problematic.

One indirect way natural disasters increase violence is through the development of babies, children and adolescents into violence-prone adults, he said. For example, poor living conditions, disrupted families and inadequate prenatal and child nutrition are risk factors for creating violence-prone adults. Anderson and Miles-Novelo noted these risk factors will become more prevalent as a result of climate change-induced disasters, such as hurricanes, droughts, floods, water shortages and changing agricultural practices for efficient production of food.

Another indirect effect: Some natural disasters are so extensive and long term that large groups of people are forced to migrate from their homeland. Anderson says this “eco-migration” creates intergroup conflicts over resources, which may result in political violence, civil wars or wars between nations.

“This is a global issue with very serious consequences. We need to plan for ways to reduce the negative impacts,” Anderson said. “An inadequate food supply and economic disparity make it difficult to raise healthy and productive citizens, which is one way to reduce long-term violence. We also need to plan for and devote resources to aid eco-migrants in their relocation to new lands and countries.”

Which is worse?

There are no data and there is no method to estimate which of the three factors will be most damaging, Anderson said. The link between heat and aggression has the potential to affect the greatest number of people, and existing research, including Anderson’s, shows hotter regions have more violent crime, poverty, and unemployment.

However, Anderson fears the third effect he and Miles-Novelo identified – eco-migration and conflict – could be the most destructive. He says we are already seeing the migration of large groups in response to physical, economic or political instability resulting from ecological disasters. The conflict in Syria is one example.

Differences between migrants and the people living in areas where migrants are relocating can be a source of tension and violence, Anderson said. As the level of such conflicts escalates, combined with the availability of weapons of mass destruction, the results could be devastating.

“Although the most extreme events, such as all-out war, are relatively unlikely, the consequences are so severe that we cannot afford to ignore them,” Anderson said.  “That is why the U.S. and other countries must make sure these regional conflicts and eco-migration problems don’t get out of hand. One way to do that is to provide appropriate aid to refugees and make it easier for them to migrate to regions where they can be productive, healthy and happy.”

Taking action now

Anderson and Miles-Novelo say the purpose of their research is to raise awareness among the scientific community to work on prevention efforts or ways to limit harmful consequences. The long-term goal is to educate the public on the potential for increased violence.

“From past experience with natural disasters, we should be able to prepare for future problems by setting aside emergency resources and funds,” Miles-Novelo said. “We should tear down negative stereotypes and prejudices about those who will need help and humanely assist refugees and others who are displaced. By doing all these things we can reduce conflict and hostility.”

Changing attitudes and policies about immigration also will lessen the potential for conflict, Anderson said. He points to the backlash against refugees in many European countries.

“The view that citizens of wealthy countries often have about refugees needs to change – from seeing them as a threat to a view that emphasizes humanitarian values and the benefits refugees bring when they are welcomed into the community,” Anderson said.

Sexual Violence Haunts Women With Vivid Memories Years Later

Women who are sexually assaulted experience more vivid memories than women coping with the aftermath of other traumatic, life-altering events not associated with sexual violence, according to a new Rutgers University–New Brunswick study.

The research, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, found that women who had suffered from sexual violence, even those who were not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had more intense memories – even years after the violence occurred – that are difficult, if not impossible to forget.

“To some extent it is not surprising that these memories relate to more feelings of depression and anxiety because these women remember what happened and think about it a lot,” said Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences who coauthored the study.  “But these feelings and thoughts are usually associated with PTSD and most women in our study who experienced these vivid memories did not suffer from PTSD, which is generally associated with more intense mental and physical reactions.”

The study included 183 college-aged women between the ages of 18-39. Sixty-four women reported that they were victims of sexual violence while 119 did not have a history of sexual violence. Less than 10 percent were on anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.

The women with a history of sexual violence reported stronger memories with specific details that included seeing the event clearly in their mind. They reported having a harder time forgetting the incident and believed it to be a significant part of their life story, according to the research.

“Each time you reflect on an old memory, you make a new one in your brain because it is retrieved in the present space and time,’’ said Shors. “What this study shows is that this process can make it even more difficult to forget what happened.”

Studies have shown that sexual aggression and violence is one of the most likely causes of PTSD in women, a condition that is associated with decreased brain functions related to learning and memory that can be both physically and mentally debilitating and difficult to overcome.

“Women in our study who ruminated more frequently also reported more trauma-related symptoms. One could imagine how rumination could exacerbate trauma symptoms and make recovery from the trauma more difficult,” said Emma Millon, a Rutgers graduate student and coauthor of the research.

According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime with adolescent girls much more likely to be the victims of rape, attempted rape or assault. Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five college students experience sexual violence during their university years.

Shors has developed a new treatment to lessen these vivid memories and help women recover that is different from the traditional Prolonged Exposure Therapy, which includes recollecting the traumatic memory during interviews, story writing and even revisiting the traumatic location.

Mental and Physical Training (MAP Training) developed by Shors combines 30 minutes of mental training with silent meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, twice a week for six weeks. In previous studies, MAP Training diminished trauma symptoms in women who experienced violence, with those participating reporting significantly fewer trauma-related thoughts and ruminations about the past.

“This problem will not go away soon and we must keep our attention focused on prevention and justice for survivors – and their recovery,” Shors said.

APA Offers Resources for Coping with Mass Shootings, Understanding Gun Violence

Constant news reports about the shooting in Las Vegas can cause stress and anxiety for people, leaving them with questions about the causes of and solutions to gun violence. Resources on the American Psychological Association’s website can help people with both issues.

One APA resource offers tips for managing feelings of distress in the aftermath of a shooting. “You may be struggling to understand how a shooting could occur and why such a terrible thing would happen. There may never be satisfactory answers to these questions,” it says. “Meanwhile, you may wonder how to go on living your daily life. You can strengthen your resilience – the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity – in the days and weeks ahead.”

Talking to children about the shooting isn’t easy but parents or teachers shouldn’t completely shield them from violence or tragedies. APA offers a series of tips to parents and other caregivers on how to guide the conversation in a proactive and supportive way. “The conversation may not seem easy, but taking a proactive stance, discussing difficult events in age-appropriate language can help a child feel safer and more secure,” according to the resource available in the APA Help Center.

Parents should also watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety.

For those who feel too overwhelmed to use the tips provided, APA suggests consulting a psychologist or other mental health professional.

“Turning to someone for guidance may help you strengthen your resilience and persevere through difficult times,” it says.

There is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in a violent act, according to a report issued by the APA in December 2013 entitled Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy. There is, however, psychological research that has helped develop evidence-based programs that can prevent violence through primary and secondary interventions.

Written by a task force composed of psychologists and other researchers, the report synthesized the available science on the complex underpinnings of gun violence, from gender and culture to gun policies and prevention strategies.

“The skills and knowledge of psychologists are needed to develop and evaluate programs and settings in schools, workplaces, prisons, neighborhoods, clinics, and other relevant contexts that aim to change gendered expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, toughness and violence, including gun violence,” according to the report.

Gun violence is estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year in medical, legal and other expenses, not to mention the psychological toll. That is why the government needs to approach it as a public health problem, according to APA acting Executive Director for Public Interest Clinton Anderson, PhD, writing in a blog post entitled No Silver Bullet: Why We Need Research on Gun Violence Prevention.

“Some have argued that we need to focus on policies that prosecute criminals and prevent those individuals who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others from obtaining a firearm,” wrote Anderson. “While these policies have merit, they are clearly not fully effective, and do not address the roots of violence in our society.”

No one policy will prevent gun violence, writes Anderson. “It will take a multi-faceted approach. Funding research that explores these horrific, impulsive acts can help us all inform and adapt our policy approach.”

In another blog post, clinical psychologist Joel Dvoskin, PhD, warned against unfairly stigmatizing the mentally ill by immediately jumping to the conclusion that most shooters have a mental illness.

“Too often, even the most well-intentioned among us believe that most mass shootings are carried out by those with untreated mental illness,” he wrote. “What the perpetrators seem to have in common is the experience of extreme situational crisis.”

Additional resources:

Talking to Kids When They Need Help

7 Ways to Talk to Children and Youth about the Shootings in Orlando

Helping Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting

How Much News Coverage is OK for Children?

Gun Violence Prevention

APA Initiatives to Prevent Gun Violence

A Practical Guide on How to Confront Hate

Tina Kempin Reuter, Ph.D., director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights Photo Credit: UAB

In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tina Kempin Reuter, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights offers some practical tips on how to confront hate.

Know your human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination and human dignity.

“Knowing one’s human rights is an important step that often gets forgotten,” Reuter said. “Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give people the tools and language needed to address certain issues. Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted.”

Reuter urges reporting human rights violations to the authorities such as the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice or other entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union. If an incident occurs in the workplace, inform your human resources representative or a diversity officer. At UAB, students, faculty, and staff can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the United Nations Human Rights website and by reading the UAB Institute for Human Rights blog, where faculty and students write about international human rights issues.

Speak up in the face of injustice

Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, Reuter encourages everyone to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life. Document, record and monitor what is going on around you, and if you see injustice, say something.

“The goal is to make everyday suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred that has occurred in Charlottesville,” Reuter said. “It’s these normal, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.”

Be aware of your own biases

One of the ways to overcome biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research shows that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice. This theory is called contact hypothesis. The theory suggests that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority groups.

“It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases,” Reuter said. “We all have them. Realize if you cross the street when a person of a different race walks toward you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment, and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others. I encourage people to reach out and make new friends outside of their race, religion and gender.”

Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests

Join a movement, and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. The UAB Institute for Human Rights is a part of the StandAsOne Coalition. If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights club.

“Not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers,” Reuter said. “We cannot all become Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Leymah Gboweee; but we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Think about what you are good at and how your skills and talent can be used to move a cause forward.”

Call your representatives

One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change is to call local and state representatives. Reuter says calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message or letter. She advises anyone contacting their local representative to be polite to the staff, which is who you will most likely get on the line. Their staff members do not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call and do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.

Educate others

This step does not have to be formal. You can educate others by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you are having. It can happen person to person, on social media or on any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find that formal ways of education do not resonate with them.

“It is such a privilege to be an educator,” Reuter said. “It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. It’s something that everyone can do. Teach your children and young relatives about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others.”


One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights.

There are a number of organizations dedicated to ensuring the preservation of individual rights and liberties, one of which is the UAB Institute for Human Rights. You can learn more about the Institute here.

Take care of yourself

Confronting issues such as hatred, violence, and suppression can take a mental and physical toll on anyone. Reuter says it is important to know what you can and cannot do, what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are.

“Focus on the local level. Start in your own community,” Reuter said. “That world is changed person by person, but don’t forget to take care of your needs. When you start to feel overwhelmed, shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news and other forms of media. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself, and realize that real progress takes patience.”

LGBTQ+ Individuals at High Risk to Be Victims of Violence

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are at high risk for being victims of physical and sexual assault, harassment, bullying, and hate crimes, according to a new study by RTI International.

In a newly published report, funded by RTI, RTI researchers analyzed 20 years’ worth of published studies on violence and the LGBTQ+ community, which included 102 peer-reviewed papers as well as a few unpublished analyses and non-peer-reviewed papers. With The Henne Group, RTI also carried out a series of focus-group discussions with LGBTQ+ communities in San Francisco; New York City; Durham, North Carolina; and rural Wyoming.

“Our research indicates that LGBTQ+ people face significant danger in their daily lives – and that their victimization affects their education, safety, and health,” said Tasseli McKay, a social scientist at RTI and the study’s lead author.

The researchers found that in a range of studies with LGBTQ+ individuals, victimization experiences are clearly and consistently correlated with behavioral health conditions and suicidality, sexual risk-taking and HIV status, other long-term physical health issues, and decreased school involvement and achievement. Such effects are often sustained many years after a victimization event.

The focus groups touched on a variety of topics including bullying, hate crimes, harassment and violence.

A transgender participant in a focus group held in Durham, North Carolina said, “Once you’ve been read as being a trans person, you check out, they check out. For us it’s safety. For them, it’s discomfort. It’s a heightened stigmatization.”

Other key findings from the report include:

-Despite a public perception of greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in present-day society, disparities in victimization have remained the same or increased since the 1990s.

-Schools are a special concern. Many LGBTQ+ youth reported being afraid or feeling unsafe at school, and school-based victimization of LGBTQ+ youth was associated with decreased school attendance, poorer school performance, and steeply increased risk of suicide attempts.

-Contradicting the common perception of hate-related victimization as being committed by strangers or acquaintances, LGBTQ+ people are often victimized by close family members, particularly their own parents and, for bisexual women, their male partners.

“We need more research to better understand what policies will provide LGBTQ+ youth with safer school and home environments, what resources provide LGBTQ+ people who are victims of violence the best support and how we can ultimately create a larger societal climate that doesn’t tolerate persistent, pervasive, lifelong victimization,” McKay said.

Violence in my Rear View Mirror

By Tracy Cerff


Too often we hear it said that a woman should ‘just leave’ a violent relationship. It is far easier said than done. Hindsight is a gift not afforded to all of us. The majority of assaults and deaths of women in domestic violence crimes have been committed after they have left the relationship.  The Australian Institute of Criminology put these horrendous crimes between 80-100 women each year, saying the majority of them were being killed in their own homes.  I remember clearly the day I ended my relationship with a former partner and how difficult and almost deadly it was.

As usual he took me in through the back entrance and insisted I sit down, politely pulling out a kitchen chair for me from the large dining table which seemed odd even then, as I had never seen anyone in the home to use it. I remember the warmth of the sun sneaking its way in the backdoor. To my dismay, but relief, he left it slightly open. It was the only comfort amongst the coldness I felt and the echoing of his voice inside my head.

We reached his home, the sun shining hot on the heavy, heritage bricks. He invited me into the house, in his ‘ordering voice’, to come inside for one last drink together. I wanted to run a thousand miles. I followed him in knowing I had to make it a quick stop or perhaps I wouldn’t be leaving at all.

Although we had just had a fiery argument in the car before arriving, he was eerily calm now and had begun to peel a mango with a sharp kitchen knife, which I’m sure I stared at for too long. He was remarkably back in his happy space again – he often changed his emotions without notice. Me however, I was stiff with fear as I now dreaded being in his presence, in his house – in his life.

From the other side of the room, while I silently watched him peel his mango, he tried to coax me to share it with him – how kind, I sarcastically thought. One mouthful and I would have physically puked. I so wanted to hide the fear I could sense he detected in me as he would see it as his prize, a triumph. I meekly declined his offer.

Deciding to now play a hero role, he came and lifted me from my pedestal – my place where he put me at the table. As he stood me up he mockingly snickered that I should lighten up and give him a hug. I stared at the shadow cast from us both open the half opened door. That doorway that gave me hope – with the warmth of the sun and openness to the outside world.

The shadow told a different story. Not one of a loving embrace for sure, rather a thrilling scene from a movie where we were the main actors. I could see the portrait of us both entwined, with the knife in his tight clenched hand against my skin. I was so frozen in fear that I couldn’t feel the actual knife itself. I knew I needed out or this was it.

With whatever scrap of strength I could summons, I hugged him as he wished and shakily lied, “I really have to get going or I’ll be late for my appointment and I don’t want them calling me”. Without hesitation, I pulled away from his grasp and grabbed my bag off the side of the chair praying it wouldn’t get caught. I don’t know why he allowed me to go, but I just knew to keep going – I did what I had to do to survive and it worked.

At my appointment I must have still been as white as a back-washed wall, as the Doctor was very concerned about my anxiousness, offering me the details of a counsellor near to my home. I never shared a word to him of the incident. I did however gratefully accept the details. I was one of the lucky ones, so many are not as fortunate.

My experiences have led me to a deeper understanding of the vast complications that women face when they find themselves in a similar situation. Unfortunately my story is not unique. It is far too common and made even more complex when there are children involved and when women don’t have the means or funds to safely leave the situation. My work in counselling and education opens doors for me to empower women, men and young people to plan their future, a future without violence and control at their hands of another.

Shared Humanity after the Orlando shootings


“We’re all human” is, we hope, a common attitude. It stems from empathy and solidarity –  the idea that, despite our differences, we are all the same.

However, whilst it seems like a positive attitude on the surface, the well-intentioned “We’re all human” is more complex than this. It has a darker underside of erasure. Used improperly, the suggestion that everybody is the same can be used to minimise problems that are faced by particular communities under the guise of common humanity.

Examples of this can be seen in responses to attacks on a range of oppressed social groups. It can be seen in the All Lives Matter response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the need for a #YesAllWomen reaction to #NotAllMen -a hashtag which was initiated after a man instigated a mass shooting in Santa Barbara due to a lack of sex from women. Now, it can be seen in the aftermath of the horrific homophobic attack in an Orlando club.

Take a recent television interview about the Orlando attack, whereupon journalist, activist and LGBT person Owen Jones stated, “It is one of the worst atrocities committed against LGBT people in the Western world for generations, and it has to be called out as such”.

The immediate response to this statement was, “Well it’s something that’s carried out against human beings isn’t it”. Later, when Owen attempted to reiterate, “This has to be called out for what it is. It was an intentional attack on LGBT people”, the interviewers again responded with “On the freedom of all people to try and enjoy themselves”, (italics added).

In this case, the worst LGBT attack in the Western world for generations is being dismissed with “We’re all human” rhetoric. The intention of the reporters was not to show empathy and share in the grief of this attack, but to dismiss the fact the attack was targeted against LGBT persons specifically.

As such, we cannot use ideas of common humanity uncritically. There needs to be some balance between “We are all people” but also, “We are not the same, and that is to be celebrated. Because we are not the same, I will listen to your struggles, which may be different from mine.” That is, being the same and being different are not mutually exclusive.

There are lessons to be learned here – not just about social injustice, the links between prejudice and violence, and how not to conduct oppressive media interviews, but also about how professionals can work with people who are from such oppressed groups. Particularly, such wider societal issues have relevance to mental health.

Firstly, we can evaluate the extent to which we consider people’s distress in wider context. People’s social circumstances have a significant impact on mental health. Especially when we are working with ethnic minorities, women, LGBT+ individuals, and other such persons, we must consider why that person may be in distress, in addition to what is troubling the person at that time.

For example, if an LGBT person has beliefs that strangers are out to hurt them, how ‘delusional’ can we call those beliefs? If an unemployed Black man experiences moods of anger and intense need to act, followed by periods of deep sadness, to what extent do we attribute this to faulty brain chemistry? If a new mother in financial debt feels helpless, can we suggest this is down to rumination and negative thought patterns?

Taking these factors into account can help us to keep a person’s lived experience at the heart of our mental health interventions. It may also support professionals to maintain hope, because interventions can be realistic and appropriate to a person’s circumstances. A psychotherapist, for example, may realise that connecting with Social Services or getting in touch employment support is a key factor in recovery – rather than feeling that the therapy is failing if things are not changing.

Secondly, we should bring people together and empower them through common experience. Examples of this include Recovery Colleges, whereby educational courses about wellbeing are co-created and co-facilitated by peers with lived experience of mental health problems, ‘sober bars’ for people with prior alcohol addictions, and supporting people with learning disabilities to go to parties, festivals and clubs. Sometimes, hearing a “me too” from someone in similar circumstances can be a powerful intervention in of itself. Where safe spaces have been compromised, new spaces need to be built and existing spaces reinforced.

Finally, we can use common humanity to engage and connect with others. As professionals, perhaps there is a role for being an ally, and acknowledging the limitations of not having lived experience of a particular thing. One powerful way to honour our shared personhood is to say: “I am not the same as you in this respect, and I also stand by you”. Professionals could, in this vein, engage in campaigning for change at a wider level. For social groups which experience high levels of violence, wouldn’t preventing the violence in the first place be the best intervention?

These concepts fit into a less well-known psychological approach called liberation psychology. By bringing people together in dialogue, we can encourage them to take action to address their social situation. By being alongside people, we can offer our support and potentially our power. And, by speaking out, we can help to change the social world within which we are all trying to get by.

We cannot change the atrocities which happened in Orlando. At the same time, we cannot shrug off social responsibility for collectively supporting a culture of violence against LGBT persons with our silence. Yes, we are all human. But no, not all humans are treated equally. Let us tap into that common humanity and stand by those who have been affected – without erasing the reality.

Reclaiming the Word Victim


Words shape the direction of our lives. The words spoken to us, around us and over us create pathways upon which our lives play out. Words can build up or tear down, set limits or promote freedom, encourage or discourage, bless or curse.

Understanding the importance of words and how they affect the victim of sex abuse is key to restoration. The words the perpetrator uses during the crime, the words the victim tells themselves and uses to describe their trauma or the words the justice system uses to the words the mental health profession depends on each set of words carries its own challenges. Each word spoken around the abuse carries an implication and an internalized meaning for the victim. Exploring and understanding the impact of the words the victim hears and uses is an important part of opening the pathway to freedom.

visit d2l.org for more information

Victim is not a demeaning, nor a bad word. It is a more representative word of the reality experienced in sex abuse. When we restore the definition of victim to its true definition, someone or something killed, destroyed, sacrificed, and/or one who suffers a loss especially by being swindled, we see there is no weakness in it and that it correctly identifies the person battered by sex abuse.

Something does get destroyed. No, more than something, someone gets destroyed! Value, personhood, beliefs, self-respect, deep core reservoirs of a person’s strength and possibility are destroyed. Parts of the person, i.e., the capability to trust, to be intimate, or feel safe are sacrificed by the uncontrolled urges and needs of another. That is being a victim!

One of the reasons our culture has moved away from using the word victim is because we don’t like the feeling the word gives us. Our society tends to hold a victim more responsible than a perpetrator. If your house is robbed, people ask if you locked the doors. If your purse is snatched, people question how you were holding it. If you are sexually abused, people ask why you went into that room. We first question the victim as if she did something wrong to create the scenario in which she was hurt. Seldom does the first response contain an outraged indictment that someone felt free to violate another’s personal rights. The victim is blamed and made to feel “less than”, so we don’t want to be called a victim.

In the moment of victimization you are rendered powerless by someone else’s actions. Power is highly esteemed in our culture, and we look less favorably on those without power. In the eyes of our culture being a victim means you did something wrong; you lost your power. The fact that as a victim you were powerless becomes unacceptable because power is so highly valued.

maxresdefault (1)There is no inherent weakness in being a victim – things happen to us that are out of our control. Being a victim has become a derogatory mark upon one’s personhood rather than the damaging event that it is. This indictment is wrong.

There is no shame in being a victim. Shame says I need to feel bad because I did something wrong. A victim of sex abuse is not the one who did something wrong. The victim is never the one at fault!

When we fail to identify the person as a victim, we nullify their reality, congratulating them that they made it through, as we expect them to ignore the impact of the crime. On the outside they adopt the identity of survivor, meaning “I’m OK”, while on the inside all they know is fear, uncertainty, intense pain, and loss of personal identity.

It is no wonder the victim of sex abuse hears, “put it behind you”, “why are you still thinking about that”, for as a culture we have told them by denying that they were a victim, that it IS over. We have told them in the use of our language that it IS all better – you survived! It is as if we hand them a badge we expect them to wear – a badge that says, “denial.” This is wrong and destructive and perpetuates and prolongs the damage of abuse.

Saying, “I’m a survivor” is not more empowering than saying, “I’m a victim”. Victims have more power to get freedom than survivors do because victims remain in touch with the reality of the trauma impact. When the victim quickly becomes a survivor and jumps from the point of impact directly to claim the status of being a survivor, they jump over a whole set of emotions, needs, thought processes, and confusion. When not connected to the reality of the emotions and belief systems, one cannot heal them. One can’t fix what they don’t know is broken. One can’t become a survivor without knowing what they survived. Just because the event is over and that person is alive does not mean they know what they have overcome.

The Top Twelve Grand Challenges Facing Society Today

Last year, the Society for Social Work and Research Conference in Washington, DC, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) unveiled its 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work with a bold call to action to help solve the toughest problems facing our society today.

When we reflect and take inventory of our ever changing society, a path of progress towards justice and equality can be seen on the horizon. However, we must be diligent in identifying those challenges and barriers that may retard our progress and growth while increasing inequality for our most vulnerable citizens.

In September 2015, the United Nations unveiled 17 Global Goals for Sustained Development in an effort to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix global climate change by 2030. The idea behind the global goals was to identify areas with the ability to affect the most change. Then, microtarget those areas through individual, organizational, and governmental action in order to maximize impact and improve outcomes.

However, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare have narrowed down their target areas even further by identifying 12 Grand Challenges in which they believe social workers both domestic and international can directly impact to improve outcomes for those we serve.

“This critical effort identifies and seeks to address the full range of major challenges facing society, from ending homelessness and stopping family violence to promoting smart decarceration and reversing extreme income inequality.”

Twelve Grand Challenges for Social Work

1. Ensure Healthy Development for All Youth

“Each year, more than six million young people receive treatment for severe mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. Strong evidence shows us how to prevent many behavioral health problems before they emerge. By unleashing the power of prevention through widespread use of proven approaches, we can help all youth grow up to become healthy and productive adults.”

2. Close the Health Gap

“More than 60 million Americans experience devastating one-two punches to their health—they have inadequate access to basic health care while also enduring the effects of discrimination, poverty, and dangerous environments that accelerate higher rates of illness. Innovative and evidence-based social strategies can improve health care and lead to broad gains in the health of our entire society.”

3. Stop Family Violence

“Family violence is a common American tragedy. Assaults by parents, intimate partners, and adult children frequently result in serious injury and even death. Such violence costs billions of dollars annually in social and criminal justice spending. Proven interventions can prevent abuse, identify abuse sooner, and help families survive and thrive by breaking the cycle of violence or finding safe alternatives.”

4. Advance Long and Productive Lives

Increased automation and longevity demand new thinking by employers and employees regarding productivity. Young people are increasingly disconnected from education or work and the labor force faces significant retirements in the next decades. Throughout the lifespan, fuller engagement in education and paid and unpaid productive activities can generate a wealth of benefits, including better health and well-being, greater financial security, and a more vital society.”

5. Eradicate Social Isolation

Social isolation is a silent killer—as dangerous to health as smoking. National and global health organizations have underscored the hidden, deadly, and pervasive hazards stemming from feeling alone and abandoned. Our challenge is to educate the public on this health hazard, encourage health and human service professionals to address social isolation, and promote effective ways to deepen social connections and community for people of all ages.”

6. End Homeless

“During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. Periods of homelessness often have serious and lasting effects on personal development, health, and well-being. Our challenge is to expand proven approaches that have worked in communities across the country, develop new service innovations and technologies, and adopt policies that promote affordable housing and basic income security.”

7. Create Social Response to a Changing Environment

“The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”

8. Harness Technology for Social Good

“Innovative applications of new digital technology present opportunities for social and human services to reach more people with greater impact on our most vexing social problems. These new technologies can be deployed to more strategically target social spending, speed up the development of effective programs, and bring a wider array of help to more individuals and communities.”

9. Promote Smart Decarceration

“The United States has the world’s largest proportion of people behind bars. Mass incarceration and failed rehabilitation have resulted in staggering economic and human costs. Our challenge is to develop a proactive, comprehensive, evidence-based “smart decarceration” strategy that will dramatically reduce the number of people who are imprisoned and enable the nation to embrace a more effective and just approach to public safety.”

10. Reduce Extreme Economic inequality

“The top 1% owns nearly half of the total wealth in the U.S, while one in five children live in poverty. The consequences for health and well-being are immeasurable. We can correct the broad inequality of wealth and income through a variety of innovative means related to wages and tax benefits associated with capital gains, retirement accounts, and home ownership. Greater lifelong access to education will also provide broader economic opportunities.”

11. Build Financial Capability for All

“Nearly half of all American households are financially insecure, without adequate savings to meet basic living expenses for three months. We can significantly reduce economic hardship and the debilitating effects of poverty by adopting social policies that bolster lifelong income generation and safe retirement accounts; expand workforce training and re-training; and provide financial literacy and access to quality affordable financial services.”

12. Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice

“In the United States, some groups of people have long been consigned to society’s margins. Historic and current prejudice and injustice bars access to success in education and employment. Addressing racial and social injustices, deconstructing stereotypes, dismantling inequality, exposing unfair practices, and accepting the super diversity of the population will advance this challenge. All of this work is critical to fostering a successful society.

How will academics, practitioners, schools of social work, governmental and NGO social welfare agencies respond to the call? As a practitioner, we have all seen grand action plans created only to sit on the shelf and never see implementation. Will they provide information to impact change, then wait for someone else to spring into action to implement, or will the experts in our profession lead the charge by engaging in public debate on the issues social workers have the most direct impact?

Together, the 12 Grand Challenges define a far-reaching, science-based social agenda that promotes individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and a just society.

Will Opposition MP’s Male Shame Change Domestic Violence?

There’s been a lot of talk, both for and against, NZ opposition leader David Cunliffe’s recent public confession that he is sorry to be a man. While I admire his intent, I think his choice of words let him down and weakened his message for several reasons.

Firstly, personalising the message made it all about him and took the focus off women, for whom he was trying to advocate. He would have come across more genuinely had he apologised, on behalf of men, for the violence and abuse women endure from men.

David-Cunliffe-1200Secondly, Cunliffe’s apology for who he is — a man — indicates shame. Researcher Brené Brown is very clear, in her discourse on shame, that shame inhibits change. You simply cannot change your behaviour if you feel bad about who you are. The antidote for shame is the admission of vulnerability. Men, in particular, are nurtured to be invulnerable — which of course they aren’t — and so many if not most men feel shame about their vulnerability.

This is where Cunliffe’s apology went awry. Any man feeling shameful about their vulnerability will have subconsciously been reminded of it. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness,” says Brown. Discomfort and the reasons for it are, for men, seen as weakness and will often be played out through anger and violence.

Another gaff for Cunliffe was the “man up” challenge. The Representation Project has made a film about the impact of the misrepresentation of masculinity on boys. Telling men to “man up” is telling them to do exactly what they’ve been falsely led to believe — that they are invulnerable and that violence leads to respect.

Finally, unwittingly, the Labour leader incited the “not every man” rebuff, which totally sidelines the issue that men, as a whole, need to take responsibility of the fact that violence against women is a male issue. Instead, he has created the senseless debate over whether all men are violent to women, which is obviously untrue. But all men need to be concerned that a lot of us are.

So good on David for trying to take on the Goliathian isssue of male violence against women. Unfortunately, by misrepresenting the issue’s complexity, he may have had less of an impact than he could have.


Should Kids Have to Keep Themselves Safe?

Recently, Violence Free Waitakere (VFW), in West Auckland NZ, launched “‘Jade Speaks Up’, a new multimedia resource to help keep children safe from violence.” The media release said, “The resource aims to help children put safety strategies in place to support themselves, should they feel afraid in their lives whether from bullying, natural disasters, adult threats or witnessing grown-ups fighting.”

Jade Speaks Up
Purchase Book

Natural disasters aside, because none of us can control those, the question has to be asked, “Are we at the all-time social low that kids, “aged 7-12 years,” now have to take responsibility for keeping themselves safe from violence and bullying?” That’s what adults were supposed to do when I was a little boy.

All kudos to Elaine Dyer and her team at VFW for a job well done. It’s a nice 8 minutes of animated characters on real-life backgrounds, catchy music, with guides and resources for teachers, parents, therapists, and social workers to facilitate sessions with children on self-preservation.

But goodness, what a sad indictment it is on us, as adults. We must finally admit we can no longer trust ourselves and each other to fulfill one of the most important roles of adults — child protection.

The countless and growing statistics and news reports attest to it: we’ve got so bad at looking after kids, the least we can do is help them look after themselves. If this saves one kid from hiding, and it’s worth its weight in gold.

I know, I’m preaching to the converted if you’re reading this. But, like me, I hope you’re holding out for Elaine and VFW to release “Jade Doesn’t Have to Speak Up.”

Child Criminals are Victims Twice Over

The arrest of 12 and 13 year old boys for aggravated robbery and murder respectively in West Auckland a couple of weeks ago highlights a growing malaise in society. The incident itself is a tragedy for the victim and his family, but what is alarming to me is that the two offending boys are victims too — of whatever circumstances led them to offend and now, potentially, of the justice system as well.

The bi-polarity of the justice system, which recognises only victim and offender, clearly fails children in these situations. The stories of those like twelve-year-old Bailey Kurariki (NZ 2001), James Bulger’s ten-year-old killers (UK 1993) and eleven-year-old Mary Bell (UK 1968), all of whom were charged and sentenced, point toward a “punishment system” that in no way takes into consideration that these children were too young to be held solely responsible for their actions.

A system that believes kids can be guilty of violent crimes without asking, “How did they become capable of violent crimes?”, is one that lacks empathy and compassion. Having empathy and compassion for the kids does not diminish feeling for the victims. It simply acknowledges the existence of complex situations that don’t follow “victim/perpetrator” patterns.

It could be easy to decide, instead, that parents are at fault, but even this logic is too simple. What we are dealing with is the result of generations of dysfunctional family systems, poverty and inequality.

Until this dynamic is acknowledged and a new system is designed to deal with it, we will see more and more children creating victims as well as being victims of their upbringing and of the justice system.

Conceived from Rape: Miss Pennsylvania’s Story Through a Social Work Lens

In a recent interview with Today.com, Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, spoke candidly of her conception from rape. According to Gatto’s biography, her then ninteen-year-old mother was raped at knife-point walking home from work.  Gatto’s mother intended to place her for adoption, feeling as though a “traditional family” could better care for her. Her family intervened and helped Gatto’s mother raise her. The beauty contestant desires to use her campaign as Miss Pennsylvania and as a Miss USA hopeful to spread awareness about sexual assault.

Valerie Gatto
Valerie Gatto

Gatto’s campaign has come under fire for its methodology. She is quoted encouraging women to avoid rape by being “present, to be aware of your surroundings.” Through a feminist and social work lens, this is immediately concerning. I won’t lie; I am a brown belt in karate and cross-trained in ground fighting–in part because being a woman makes me a target for violence. Regardless, national anti-violence campaigns should avoid at all costs implying women can and should prevent their own rapes when it is rapists who need to stop raping.

Embedded in Gatto’s public narrative and perhaps less apparent but incredibly important are implications for serving individuals conceived from rape. As a person conceived from rape who is connected to a broader community affected by this issue, I can attest to the prevalent societal gaps in a respectful and understanding approach to these individuals and their mothers. Social workers are in an advantageous position to be allies and close these gaps.

Social work’s strive to see those in the margins and validate their humanity is vital here. Individuals conceived from rape are commonly spoken of as though we do not exist. Perhaps this is what most compellingly draws me to Gattos’ narrative–she expects people to respectfully listen to her when respectful dialogue on this issue is not the media’s norm. Headlines broadcasting the abortion debate refer to us as “rape babies,” “children of rape,” or “children of rapists.”  I was mortified when “rape babies” became the source of a joke on The Daily Show. I cringe when those claiming to be “pro-choice” quickly abandon their resolve for unquestioned choice for women based on rape conception because it’s simply too easy to instead argue that being a mother to “rape baby” must be awful.

I once sat in a small diner on my lunch break when such a news feature flickered across the  TV adorning a bright orange stucco wall.  A lively abortion debate between patrons ensued as I stared at the ice floating in my diet soda.  “I don’t think women should get to have abortions” one man finally bellowed. “Unless it’s rape,” he clarified. “I mean, can you imagine what it is like to be one of those rape babies?” All at once I felt vulnerable–yet invisible.

Gatto’s mother “decided to raise Valerie with the help of God and her family” (source). It is difficult for people to imagine that individuals conceived from rape are loved or wanted by their families. When I reunited with my family of origin as an adult adoptee, friends and family were shocked that I was embraced and welcomed.  One friend said, “I am so glad she wanted to know you, considering the circumstances.”

As a social worker, valuing human relationships and approaching my work from a strengths perspective means I apply these principles to everyone and check my biases when I find myself coming to knee-jerk conclusions about someone’s family. I often remind people, I am a person; I am not what my biological father did.  Gatto’s narrative, my own, and those of many others I am privileged to know are an abrupt push-back to the deficit focused approach that we are nothing more “painful reminders” to families who cannot possibly love us.  Leaving our families unsupported, these assumptions pervade an unimaginable shame.

I regularly receive messages from biological and adoptive parents and from individuals conceived from rape, their children, and their spouses.  How can I tell my child the truth about her story without her feeling shame?…….My husband just found out about his conception; how can I help him deal with the shame he feels?……..Where are the support sources for victims and their children?–I can’t find any.  Shame is so isolating.

Gatto claims her mother would have placed her for adoption had her family not intervened and offered her support.  Here’s another bias that needs to be checked: adoption is not inevitable. Whether in Pro-Life or Pro-Choice circles, or debates between, rape conception is persistently spoken of as though there are only two choices: adoption or abortion. The bias that individuals conceived from rape can’t be loved by their families–that adoption is a way of getting rid of presumably  unwanted children–narrows choices women have to make about pregnancy and parenting.  Whether abortion, adoption, or parenting, survivors of rape are entitled to self-determination and support for their decision.

“Rape babies,” “painful reminders,” “rapist’s baby,” “unwanted”–what Gatto’s narrative reminds me of most is that we tell our stories best.  A few years ago, I discovered my own public narrative featured in a column of an Irish newspaper as a part of the contentious abortion debate in a country with a history of incredibly restrictive abortion policies. I was criticized for my stance on choice as someone who argues for women’s self-determination in health care and who maintains that my mother’s pregnancy choices, whatever they might have been, are none of my business.

When Gatto says she doesn’t share her story for self-promotion but to be an advocate for chance, I believe her. Regardless of how I feel about her approach to anti-violence advocacy, I have experienced and witnessed the shame disclosing conception from rape brings. This is not an easy story to tell.

When another columnist re-framed my story through a stereotypical lens, I was no longer the empowered woman I believed myself to be.  The columnist claimed I came to erroneous conclusions about my own story–that I failed to realize how lucky I was not to be aborted in order to be in the position of advocating for women. I ask you, which would you rather be: free to come to your own conclusions or treated as though your existence is shameful? When we do not honor individuals conceived from rape as the rightful narrators of their own life story, we miss out on everything we could know about supporting them.

Exit mobile version