The Issues

Any assault to the head, neck or airways can cause an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI), with the likelihood increasing when assaults are repeated and frequent. Concussions, minor head injuries and strangulation within a domestic and family violence (DFV) setting can happen without the victim having any understanding of the potential long-term consequences.

In 2016–17, almost 2 in 3 (63%, or 2,200) hospitalisations of women due to assault by a spouse or domestic partner were for treatment of injuries to the head and/or neck, including 248 (7%) of hospitalisations due to brain injuries.[i]

Head injuries and intimate partner violence, however, remain underreported – and these difficulties in understanding prevalence are compounded by a lack of specific screening tools, as well as issues classifying and diagnosing mild traumatic brain injury.[ii]

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where family violence occurs at higher rates, the problem is even greater. In 2014–15, 1 in 7 (14%) Indigenous women experienced physical violence in the previous year. Of these, about 1 in 4 (28%) reported that their most recent incident was perpetrated by a cohabiting partner (ABS 2016).

One study of women in three domestic violence shelters found that:

  • 92% had been hit in the head by their partners, most more than once.
  • 83% had been both hit in the head and severely shaken.
  • 8% of them had been hit in the head over 20 times in the past year.
  • The more times individuals had been hit in the head or shaken, the more severe, and the more frequent, were their symptoms.[iii]

People affected may not receive appropriate treatment due to being unaware of the link between these assaults and delayed symptoms. An Brain injury caused by strangulation, for example, will not show up immediately, but can develop in the weeks and months after the event. Similarly, concussion/mild-brain injuries, do not show-up on brain scans, but are identified only by symptoms, cognitive testing and history of physical trauma. One study indicated that functional impairment was present for up to 33% of cases at 3 months and 22% at 1 year.[iv]

Crucially, brain injury can impact people’s capacity to recover from their experiences and safeguard their future wellbeing. Brain injuries caused by DFV can lead to a range of symptoms, including:

  • changes to personality and mood;
  • cognitive delays or dysfunction;
  • physical disability;
  • changes in behaviour and coping strategies;
  • problems with communication and speaking;
  • chronic pain;
  • memory loss;
  • fatigue;
  • headaches;
  • changes to the senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.[v]

Our position

In order to respond adequately to the needs of victims of DFV with brain injury, there needs to be broad upskilling across the health and DFV service sectors – including clinicians, social workers and domestic violence shelters – to make sure brain injury is understood and can be screened for, so that appropriate supports can be provided.

Given the likelihood of brain injury impacting on a person’s ability to leave a relationship, gain financial independence, and engage with services and supports, it’s a critical piece of the puzzle.

Domestic violence service providers should screen everyone who seeks services for brain injury, and, when an brain injury is suspected, refer for specialised screening, evaluation, and services.

Related Projects

Women Exiting the Corrections System

Women Exiting the Corrections System

In 2018 Synapse partnered with the NSW Department of Justice and Guthrie House, a not-for-profit transitional service for women exiting the prison system, to support women who may have a brain injury.

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The Guddi Way

The Guddi Way

The Guddi Way Screen is a culturally appropriate screening process to identify brain injury and complex disability. Once a brain injury has been identified, it may enable a pathway to appropriate support via the NDIS. For some people, this may the first time in their lives that a brain injury has been identified and that they have the opportunity to receive support.

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Artwork by Aunty Lauraine Barlow

Assessing the Disability Needs of Indigenous Prisoners

Synapse is working with Griffith University to review the processes for assessing the disability needs of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

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Related Services

Two women sitting at table

Assessment & Planning

Practical assessments to identify how a brain injury is affecting your daily life and planning to ensure appropriate support.

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Woman sitting at table

Direct Support

Tailored personal support across aspects of daily living, enabling you or someone you support to participate in desired community, vocational and educational activities.

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Housing Options

Information and practical housing support options to help you or someone you support live in the home and community of their choice.

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Information & Referral

Our Information & Referral team provides specialist information and advice to help manage the impacts of brain injury and better navigate the systems of available care and support.

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NDIS Services

Registered NDIS pre-planning, support coordination and specialised services to ensure you, or the person you are caring for, get the most suitable support.

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Training & Education

Unique, specialised training to help you and your team better understand the needs of people impacted by brain injury.

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