The View of the Impact of Violence Against Women as a Psychiatric Disorder is a Choice that Furthers the Violation and Oppression of Women Trauma Survivors

by Samantha Kearney, BWSS Manager of Retail Services and Programs

I wrote this article to share what I witnessed,  heard, and what I believe based on my long-term counseling work with women who have experienced a multitude of violences and horrors at the hands of others. I heard countless women who shared with me their experiences within the helping systems such as psychiatry how they were silenced and disempowered.

I worked with women who shared that they have been in the psychiatric system for 20, 10, 5 years without ever talking about the violence they experienced in their lives. I  worked with women who struggle to understand the labels that have been thrown upon them – “manic depressive”,“schizophrenic”, “bipolar”. I worked with women who are so heavily medicated by anti-psychotic drugs who tell me they want to feel again. I asked women who have been in therapy for most of their lives and have not shared their history of abuse why that is…I get the responses, “My therapist doesn’t work with abuse”, “I was told it would be too much for me to handle if I talked about it”, “I was told not to share my abuse in the group… that it is not the place”. When I ask women about their understanding and meaning of the diagnoses put upon them, many reply that they are confused and have no understanding of those labels. When I hear their histories most often abuse precedes the manifestation of the “psychiatric symptoms”. When I ask women if their “symptoms”/”diagnoses” were ever linked to the trauma they experienced, many reply no. When I offer them information about the common reactions of abuse and trauma, such as intense emotions, swings in moods, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, intense fear, high vigilance, and so forth, many ask why this information was not shared with them by their doctor, therapist, psychiatrist and many feel a huge sense of relief, validation, and normalization.

Now, it is true that when we open and explore our “boxes of trauma”, it can be overwhelming and it can throw us for a spin that may compromise our safety (e.g., physical, emotional, social, spiritual). Being abused by others who are suppose to love and take care of us impacts our whole being and hurts us to our very core. So yes, when we open our “trauma box” and begin to share, we need to do so in a safe way (e.g., connected to what we are sharing and how much), with a safe person (e.g., one who will not judge, criticize, or hurt us), in a safe place, and have a sense of how we are going to take care of our selves afterwards (e.g., safety plans for our emotions and body). “Safety” is an umbrella term that signifies various elements such as reducing self-injurious behaviours, establishing physical safety from an abusive partner, reducing suicidality, gaining control of ways of coping such as dissociation/ disconnecting from oneself and the present. It is important before exploring past abuse, women have a level of safety in their present life. This does not mean women need to be shut down and silenced when they share a bit of their past. In our world today, complete safety for a woman is not attainable right now.


Women today continue to live and navigate in a world full of oppressive forces to keep them down and disempowered. “Simply living in the body of an oppressed person is traumatic and exhausting” (Women Making Waves, Volume 18, Issue 3, 2007). Women sharing a word or two or even a past incident of abuse, the listener can listen to it and does not need to jump to shut her down. Listening and grounding her sharing in the present and within the container of the counselling relationship and room can provide the necessary safety. Exploration of past traumatic material is critically important because it is through directly processing the trauma memories that they no longer have such an emotional hold and power over the woman.

So I hope we, listeners and helpers, do not assume and judge a woman’s safety by the label and diagnose she has. I hope we assess with the woman herself what safety is, what safety she would need to do trauma based counselling, and how we can best support her in doing that work. I do not want our, ‘helpers’, judgements and own fears to silence women that would only be furthering and perpetuating the oppression women trauma survivors experience. We, helpers, need to remember that it was and is that woman herself who wants to share her pain and wounds of trauma that has been the one who has lived, managed, and survived those horrors. It is that woman who holds within her the strength, the courage, and the tools to overcome abuse. We, helpers, need to see that and need to work and build upon those strengths rather than seeing the woman as some sort of fragile being.

As stated in our past newsletter article (Women Making Waves, Vol.18, Issue 3, 2007), “The work we do is complex for sure, it is informed by trauma theory, addiction theory, attachment theory, anti-oppression analysis, family systems theory…the work of the researchers and academics…at the end of the day it is very simple, really…When we are hurting and we’re scared sometimes all we need is someone to be there when we need it, to listen, not place judgement or criticize or blame, to demonstrate compassion and caring. And that is what we are all about at BWSS…”.

If you want information about interpersonal trauma/ abuse and its impact, two useful resources you can check out are Judith Herman, Trauma & Recovery, and Charlotte Kasl who looks both at trauma and addiction.

If you are wanting information and support regarding the trauma you have experienced, please check out our Healing from Trauma through Empowerment Groups and our Stopping the Violence Counselling Program on our website  and/or call our Intake & Crisis line at 604-687-1867. All our services are free and confidential.

Last year, Battered Women’s Support Services responded to over 10,000 crisis calls from women and girls to get help and end violence. We could not provide this essential support without your contribution.