The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Gender and Intersectional Feminism Committee hosted the second day of a two-day public event on domestic violence awareness, “Stop Domestic Violence: A Community Response,” on Wednesday.
The event began at 11 a.m. with a presentation by Brooke Axtell, founder and director of the organization She is Rising. A resident of Austin, Texas, Axtell said she helps survivors of sex trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence heal and become leaders.
Much of Axtell’s presentation focused on strategies for identifying warning signs of dating and domestic violence. She said one of the greatest risk factors for someone experiencing domestic violence as an adult is sexual assault before the age of 18.
“The reason why this is such a tremendous vulnerability is because we learn through all forms of abuse, but particularly sexual violence, that our needs, our desires and our boundaries don’t matter,” Axtell said. “And so, when somebody has a background of previous sexual violence, it’s very easy once they step into a relationship to normalize patterns and behaviors that are controlling and violent.”
Axtell said although domestic and partner violence, including dating violence, impacts both men and women, about 85 percent of victims in domestic violence cases are women.
One of the common indicators for potential dating violence Axtell brought up was untreated mental health issues. An example would be if a person has significant issues with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and they refuse to get help and look at their past trauma. While a person struggling with mental health issues will not necessarily become abusive, it can be a red flag if they do not have the support to treat those issues.
Another red flag, Axtell said, is addiction and substance abuse. If a person consumes excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs to relieve stress without having healthy ways to do so, or to self-medicate things such as mental health issues, personal struggles and trauma, that can be an indicator.
“And obviously, any of these things in isolation is not necessarily cause for immediate concern, but multiple factors looked at together can definitely start to paint a picture of somebody that simply does not have access to the ability to regulate their emotions in a way that they can create a healthy relationship,” Axtell said.
One of the other indicators Axtell believes is more unique to the psychology of an abuser is narcissism. This can manifest in a variety of ways, including people who have a strong sense of entitlement that drives them to be very dominant and becoming irritable and angry when their needs and desires are not always met. Narcissism can also show up as someone always playing the victim.
“So this is sometimes a little bit more difficult to identify because you could be drawn in if you’re a compassionate, empathetic person,” Axtell said. “You could think, ‘Okay, this is somebody who needs help. This is somebody who needs to be taken care of,’ particularly if there are substance abuse and mental health issues. It’s very easy to feel like, ‘Oh, they need me, they need my support, they need help, they need care,’ not that there is some fundamental instability here that needs to be looked at.”
Axtell said she thinks there is a difference between someone who has mental health and substance abuse issues and needs support, and someone who is fundamentally incapable of really considering another person. One of the ways to discern between these two types of people is somebody who is capable of prioritizing his or her own recovery, respecting boundaries and taking responsibility for his or her own behaviors, choices and feelings is somebody with whom one can still engage in a relationship. In contrast, for someone who has those issues but also has a narcissistic orientation, it will always ultimately be about him or her.
Other red flags Axtell discussed included a people whose anger is disproportionate to what is happening to them.
Wednesday’s event also included a moderated lunch discussion conducted by the UAFS Student Government Association. In addition, the SGA presented a resolution to support efforts to ameliorate domestic violence.