During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, KoreAm‘s mental health columnist addresses a form of abuse that is intimately painful.
by DR. ESTHER OH
What I am about to share is a true story, but I am using pseudonyms to shield the individuals’ identities. Helen Park* met Andrew Kim* during a high school church retreat. Their friendship blossomed into a romance. They talked for hours on the phone, attended church events together and hung out with friends as a couple. But what seemed to be a good relationship took a dark turn the first time he slapped her on the face during a heated argument. Shocked, hurt and embarrassed, Helen stayed away from Andrew. But a few days later, he called her apologizing and promised it would never happen again. She decided to give him another chance.
The relationship seemed to return to the happier days she once knew until they had another fight where he hit her arm so hard that it caused a large bruise. Helen vowed she had enough and decided to break things off once again. But within a week, Andrew sent her flowers and promised he would control his anger. Because she loved him and wanted to believe he changed, she gave him another chance.
This cycle continued for six years. During the relationship, Helen, too embarrassed to tell her family, tried talking to her friends. Some criticized her for going back to him and even refused to be her friend until she ended it. She cried often, had trouble sleeping and constantly worried when he would “explode” again. Never did Helen imagine this would happen to her. Or, let it get that far.
Domestic violence is more common than most people think. One in every four women experiences some form of domestic violence in her lifetime. It is estimated that 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Thought most victims are female, about 10 percent of domestic violence victims are men.
Though rarely discussed or reported, it’s a problem that impacts the Korean American community. Based on a survey conducted among Korean men and women in Northern California, 40 percent stated they knew a Korean woman who experienced physical violence from her husband or boyfriend, and 50 percent knew someone suffering from regular emotional abuse from a partner.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, intimate partner violence leads to more than 18.5 million mental health care visits each year in this country. Domestic violence can manifest in the form of physical, sexual, psychological or economic abuse. Studies demonstrate a strong link between domestic violence and various mental health issues. Like any trauma, domestic violence can trigger depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and drug and alcohol dependence.
In my facility, I have treated many Korean Americans affected by domestic violence. Some are escorted by police for threatening to kill themselves during a heated dispute. Others come in first complaining of feeling depressed, anxious and unable to sleep, before admitting their partner is abusive. Our culture doesn’t exactly encourage us to confide in others, including mental health professionals, because it can be seen as a sign of weakness or may bring shame to our family. Even when the abuse is witnessed, others are reluctant to get involved or minimize the seriousness, claiming it’s typical for Korean men to lose their temper.
If a loved one has the courage to talk to you about being abused, the most important thing you can do is provide unconditional support and reassurance that he or she is not alone. Also keep in mind that it is common for victims to stay in abusive relationships until they are ready to leave. Try not to judge their decisions; instead, express your concerns about their safety and encourage them to seek out domestic violence support groups or mental health services.
Helen eventually sought counseling, which helped her realize that abuse should not be tolerated. More importantly, she learned that she deserved to be respected and loved in a healthy relationship. If, like Helen, you find yourself affected by this kind of abuse, know that it is not your fault and that you don’t have to deal with it on your own. Churches, police departments and mental health centers are here to help.
Dr. Esther Oh, a psychiatrist at the Los Angeles County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, writes a regular mental health column for KoreAm. If you would like to submit questions to Dr. Oh, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be strictly confidential and only accessed by Dr. Oh. Opinions expressed here represent those solely of the author.
This article was published in the October 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the October issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)