Health and Well-BeingPonder This

Welfare Policies Need an Injection of Compassion

Compassion is our source of nonviolent social transformation.~ James W. Douglass

In New Zealand there are 270,000 children living in poverty. Photo, from Panel 7 of Brett Whiteley’s ‘American Dream’.

The impact on mental health of living for years in war-torn homes of domestic violence, and/or being subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect, can be just as damaging, if not more so, than engaging in combat or being a prisoner of war. The ignorance and lack of understanding of this, both in governments and the general population, not only further negatively impacts the mental and physical health and well-being of those caught in the trap of such violence, but continues to exacerbate our most pressing social problems, including but not limited to, substance abuse, teenage pregnancies, teenage suicides, juvenile delinquency, criminal violence, welfare dependency, and child poverty.

A glaring example of the lack of understanding about the impact of violence occurred during the First World War, when Britain shot 306 of their own soldiers – some as young as 14 years’ old – for cowardice and desertion. Ignored was the fact that most of these men were suffering from shell shock. Often they were derogatively called “malingerers” without any acknowledgement of the difficult conditions under which they served, or how it impacted them. Because the military hierarchy and Ministry of Defence bureaucracy claimed that the executed men had received a fair trial, successive governments refused to reconsider the original verdicts. It wasn’t until 2006 that official pardons were finally granted – ninety years later. The story of one executed volunteer soldier, Harry Farr, serves to demonstrate – along with today’s victims of violence and abuse in the home – the injustice of how these men were treated, and misunderstood.

Harry Farr fought in the trenches in a position that was repeatedly shelled. In May, 1915, he collapsed with strong convulsions. His wife recalled while visiting him in hospital that he shook all the time. Because Farr also couldn’t stand the noise of guns, it is now thought that he was possibly suffering from hypacusis, which occurs when the eardrums are so damaged that the auditory nerve becomes exposed, making loud noises physically unbearable.

Despite this, Farr was sent back to the front and fought at the Somme. After several months he requested to see a medical orderly but was refused. His Sergeant Major was quoted as saying to him, “If you don’t go up to the f*****g front, I’m going to f*****g blow your brains out.” To this Farr simply replied, “I just can’t go on.” His Court Martial, during which Farr had to defend himself, was over in 20 minutes. He was shot at dawn on October 16, 1916.

There was little understanding in those days of the deeply disturbing impact of shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even today there is much ignorance about this condition in the general population. While those dealing with war veterans and people involved in natural disasters or car and plane accidents know the symptoms of PTSD, and the implications of leaving it untreated, doctors in primary care generally do not. Neither are they aware that rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect are also high risk factors for PTSD. In one research study of 5,877 people from communities across the United States, 65 percent of men and 45.9 percent of women developed PTSD after rape, compared with 38.8 percent who developed it after combat.

A psychologist in New Zealand told me that about 60 percent of inmates he worked with in an Auckland prison had PTSD. In 1996, a ‘National Study of Psychiatric Morbidity in NZ Prisons’ revealed that a lifetime prevalence of PTSD for women inmates was 37 percent. One may then wonder when considering New Zealand’s high domestic violence rate, how many solo mothers living on welfare have undiagnosed PTSD after leaving abusive and violent relationships and, like the British soldiers who were shot for cowardice and desertion during the First World War, are being maligned because of it.

After years of teaching children in schools and counselling adults with a history of childhood abuse, it is apparent to me that too many children experience their home as a war zone where violence, abuse, and brutalization is a ‘normal’ part of life. Since children are dependent on adults for the necessities of life, they can therefore be trapped for years (like prisoners of war) in unremitting cycles of chaos and abuse living with angry, violent, drug addicted, alcohol dependent, mentally ill, or depressed parents who, most likely, came from similar home environments and are unwittingly acting out, or reacting to, or reliving their own abusive childhoods through their own children. It is likely that many of these parents have undiagnosed PTSD and are bewildered by the array of alarming symptoms they have, often masked by depression or anaesthetised by alcohol and/or drugs.

Just as the sound of guns was unbearable for Harry Farr, stressful situations can be unbearable for PTSD sufferers because they have significantly lowered stress thresholds. Like flicking a switch, they can suddenly lose the ability to regulate their emotions and become ‘emotionally hijacked’. They can erupt in tears, unpredictable rages, verbally and physically lash out at others and, at their wits end with a crying baby, throw it against a wall. People with PTSD are jumpy – like a bundle of nerves – and startle very easily. Noisy work or school environments can destroy their ability to concentrate as they are hypervigilant and easily distracted by any slight disturbance. Being in a crowded place is often very stressful and they usually seek to be alone. They are often sleep deprived because of unremitting insomnia, frequent nightmares, or constantly waking through the night with a pounding heart or in a lather of sweat. Hypervigilance instantly activates their fight/flight/freeze response to the slightest threat or reminder of their trauma – like the veteran who dives for cover at the sound of an engine backfiring. Remaining in a hyper-aroused state with constantly high levels of stress hormones also causes numerous health problems. Life can, and often does, become a living hell.

Many studies now reveal that PTSD is a significant risk factor for domestic violence, child abuse, problems in interpersonal relationships, violent crimes, incarceration and problems with the judicial system, depression, other anxiety disorders, substance abuse/disorders, suicide, smoking, high risk behaviour, teenage pregnancies, eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, cancer, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, benefit dependency, and homelessness.

Some children escape the ‘prison’ of abuse and violence in their homes through suicide, running away and becoming homeless, or mentally disappearing into fantasies or intellectual pursuits. Other children numb their painful feelings with alcohol, drugs, food or a host of negative mood-altering actions like cutting themselves, high risk behaviour, and promiscuity. While some dissociate or develop amnesia to erase all memories of traumatic abuse, others escape the humiliation of being a victim by becoming perpetrators of the violence they experience. Bullies at school and in our work places most often come from such violent home environments.

Many young women and teenage girls escape the war zone of violence in their family by marrying early and starting a family of their own, driven consciously and unconsciously by the need to find security. Without any awareness or understanding of the underlying dynamics that cause relationships to succeed or fail, or the likely possibility that they are either suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, depression, or an anxiety disorder, these young women will also likely become victims of domestic violence and repeat the same cycle of abuse their mothers were caught in.

Just as Harry Farr knew he could not go on – perhaps even despite the likelihood that he would be executed for cowardice – many women know they cannot take any more violence and opt for the much maligned DPB in the hope that it will at least give them some psychological breathing space. To be pushed into work (which can mean unsafe work places due to bullying and/or high levels of stress) can be like the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. In such instances, living in poverty on a benefit can be seen as the only way out to maintain their sanity.

But the government then punishes these women further by removing part ($60 or more a week depending on the number of children) of their Working for Families tax credits given to help with the costs of the children. The reason for this is that they are no longer part of a couple meeting the fixed hours of paid work requirement.

Surely this is discrimination of the acutest kind, following the same thinking that saw Harry Farr’s widow punished for her husband’s ‘disgraceful conduct’ by being denied a widow’s pension, and subsequently forced out of her house, with her daughter, to suffer financial hardship, stigma and shame.

John Minto wrote in Parnell Parents and memories of Alamein Kopu on The Daily Blog that the In-Work Tax Credit is “one of the nastiest, cruellest policies ever devised by Labour and its appalling effects have resonated for hungry kids every day for many years now.” Far from its design of helping to alleviate child poverty, this part of the Working for Families tax policy has made child poverty considerably worse. Today in New Zealand, 270,000 children are now caught in the child poverty trap.

Fighting against the injustice and discrimination of denying parents on benefits and others not meeting the work requirements for the In-Work Tax Credit (also often due to loss of jobs during an economic downturn, retrenchments, and even the earthquakes in Christchurch), the Child Poverty Action Group launched a legal challenge in the Court of Appeal in Wellington, scheduled for May, 28 and 29 this week, arguing that the policy discriminates against children on the basis of their parents’ work status, which is prohibited under the Human Rights Act.

Rather than the In-Work Tax Credit acting as an incentive for beneficiaries to go to work so they can feed themselves and their children, it is more like a hand wielding a threatening stick – similar to how Harry Farr was threatened by his Sergeant Major. I learned long ago while teaching Year Ten boys with behavioural problems and learning difficulties that punishment always made the situation worse. It was only when I focused my attention on what was ‘right’ with them and praised their efforts to work with me to fill in their learning gaps that they began to display a capacity to turn their lives around.

When we consider that over 90,000 children and young people under 17 in New Zealand witness domestic violence (reported incidents only), and that there are over 20,000 substantiated findings of child abuse and neglect, perhaps it is not so surprising that high numbers of children will later become victims of further violence in their homes as adults, and/or begin a lifelong struggle living with PTSD. These figures don’t take into account the equally damaging impact of psychological abuse children are exposed to in the home. What is little known is that witnessing domestic violence is a very high risk factor for developing PTSD in children, when it can become chronic and unremitting.

To break cycles of violence, not only is education imperative, so too is treatment for PTSD (often comorbid with depression, substance abuse, or both) which includes psychotherapy to face and heal the pain of the past. Ongoing social support is also a vital part of this healing process.

With compassion, we can help the most vulnerable in our society to get a foothold in life and go on to turn their lives around. In this way everyone benefits as they move from a state of fear, anxiety, anger, or learned helplessness to discover their potential as human beings. Sometimes it can be a long and winding road, requiring our patience and understanding of the processes needed to break abusive and violent cycles. At such times, compassion needs to be our guiding light.

New Zealand domestic violence statistics

  • One in three women experience psychological or physical abuse from their partners in their lifetime1.
  • On average 14 women, six men and 10 children are killed by a member of their family every year.
  • Police are called to around 200 domestic violence situations a day – that’s one every seven minutes on average.
  • Police estimate only 18% of domestic violence incidents are reported.
  • At least 74,785 children [94,099 children in 2010] and young people aged under 17 were present at domestic violence situations attended by police.
  • 84% of those arrested for domestic violence are men; 16% are women.
  • The economic cost of domestic violence was estimated at $1.2 to $5.8 billion per year by economist Suzanne Snively in 19962. In today’s figures, that would be up to $8 billion.
  • In the 2009/10 year there were 3,867 domestic violence cases in the Family Court which each involved at least one child.

See also:

NZ worst for domestic violence – UN report

Family Violence in New Zealand

PTSD and It’s Damaging Impact on Individuals, Families and Communities

Longitudinal Effects of Domestic Violence on Employment and Welfare Outcomes

Myths and Facts – Sole Parents and the DPB

Originally published in Scoop on May 31, 2013. Some statistics have been updated here.

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