Domestic Violence a Growing Problem for Veterans, Researchers Say

On Nov. 11, citizens across the country paused to remember, honor and celebrate our nation’s veterans. But Veterans’ Day also serves as a reminder of the challenges facing service members, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which researchers say can make male veterans more prone to domestic violence.

Research from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows that male veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely than veterans without PTSD to engage in intimate partner violence and more likely to be involved in the legal system.

"The increasing number of veterans with PTSD raises the risk of domestic violence and its consequences on families and children in communities across the United States," said Monica Matthieu, Ph.D., an expert on veteran mental health and an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

Matthieu and Peter Hovmand, Ph.D., domestic violence expert and assistant professor of social work at Washington University, merged their research interests and are working to design community prevention strategies to address this emerging public health problem.

"Treatments for domestic violence are very different than those for PTSD,” Matthieu said. “The [VA] has mental health services and treatments for PTSD, yet these services need to be combined with the specialized domestic violence intervention programs offered by community agencies for those veterans engaging in battering behavior against intimate partners and families."

Community Response

According to Hovmand, the growing prevalence of traumatic brain injury and substance use disorders, as well as PTSD among veterans, challenge existing community responses to domestic violence.

"Community responses to domestic violence must be adapted to respond to the increasing number of veterans with PTSD,” he explained. “This includes veterans with young families and older veterans with chronic mental health issues."

Even as the demographic of the veteran population changes as World War II veterans reach their 80s and 90s and young veterans completing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers of living veterans who have served in the United States military is staggering. Current estimates indicate that there are 23,816,000 veterans.

Matthieu pointed out that there are evidence-based psychological treatment programs that can be a great resource for clinicians to learn how to identify and treat PTSD symptoms. However, identifying battering behaviors among veterans with active PTSD symptoms may be difficult and may require consultation and referral to domestic violence experts. He said treatment plans for veterans should include help from community violence prevention agencies and services to address these behaviors.

"Veterans need to have multiple providers coordinating the care that is available to them, with each provider working on one treatment goal,” he said.

Such coordinated community response efforts would combine law enforcement, the courts, social service agencies, community activists and advocates for women to address the problem of domestic violence. These efforts, Hovmand said, increase victim safety and offender accountability by encouraging communication.

"Veterans’ Day is an excellent reminder that we need to coordinate the services offered by the VA and in the community to ensure that our veterans and their families get the services they need when they need it," Matthieu and Hovmand said.

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