Family violence increases risk for many diseases while harming mental health, Canada’s top doctor warns

More than 230 Canadians a day are victims of family violence that are reported to police, Canada’s chief public health officer says in releasing a new report on a seldom discussed issue.

Dr. Gregory Taylor’s 2016 report on the state of public health focuses on family violence, including sexual, emotional and financial abuse, as well as neglect.

Taylor calls the statistics staggering:

  • Every day, just over 230 Canadians are reported as victims of family violence.
  • In 2014, 57,835 girls and women were victims of family violence, accounting for seven out of every 10 reported cases.
  • Every four days a woman is killed by a family member.
  • Population surveys tell us that a third of Canadians, that is 9 million people, have reported experiencing abuse before they were 15 years old.
  •  About 760,000 Canadians reported experiencing unhealthy spousal conflict, abuse or violence in the last five years.
  • In 2014, Indigenous people were murdered at a rate six times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians, with Indigenous women being three times more likely to report spousal abuse than nonindigenous women.
  • Every day, eight seniors are victims of family violence.

“If you look at the statistics in Canada, I think they’re stunning. They’re overwhelming,” said Taylor in an interview.

Taylor said he was struck by the pervasiveness of the problem.

“Beyond just the initial impact, the physical trauma or the emotional trauma or the psychological trauma, it has far-reaching impacts later on in life. Post-traumatic stress disorder for example,” he said. “It’s even linked to chronic diseases like cancer. Hard to believe, but [there are] some theories about it potentially [being] a chronic stress-related disease.”

Despite the work of researchers, health care professionals and communities, he said it’s still not well understood why family violence happens or the best ways to intervene.

Health Minister Jane Philpott said the report raises awareness about the challenge of family violence.

​”That report raises more questions than answers, but we have to start,” Philpott said. “Canadians deserve to feel safe.”

Changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviours

Everyone has a responsibility to stop violence, Taylor said, such as by changing beliefs and attitudes, and creating safe and supportive communities.

“It has to be clear that this strikes at the very heart of our society, at our families,” Taylor said. “I think it’s clear from the report that we’ve done that this needs to be unacceptable.”

Social worker Tod Augusta-Scott, a family counsellor in Nova Scotia, helps perpetrators of aggressive behaviour — such as door slamming — to change their behaviour before it escalates to more serious violence.

“You know some of the dominant ideas around masculinity are unhelpful and their influence on some men,” Augusta-Scott said. “Also, trauma is often a factor that aggravates these situations in terms of men’s own experiences.”

While it’s estimated that 70 per cent of family violence is never reported, Taylor pointed to one positive trend: while still alarming in number, reports of family violence are on the decline.

Augusta-Scott said adopting a proactive approach could further bring the numbers down and maybe save some families.




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