Coercive control: impact on mental health and criminalisation

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The public and survivor perception about intimate partner and family violence is mostly interpreted as physical violence and injury to the person. It is important to understand that intimate partner and family violence is more than physical violence. In fact, more people suffer from the silent killer known as coercive control which is distinct from psychological aggression. It is more common than physical, emotional, and sexual intimate partner violence.

In Mauritius, 1 in 5 women are victims of domestic violence (Statistics Mauritius 2022). The focus, unfortunately, seems to be mainly on physical violence. There is very little focus on coercive control, which is the bigger issue, traumatising victims/survivors who are scared for life. This is one more reason why we need to address and educate the population and relevant authorities about coercive control. So, what do we know about coercive control? How do we identify coercive behaviours? What is the impact on mental health and practical ways of supporting affected individual?

From a psychological perspective, coercive control is about restructuring the thought process. It involves control of behaviour, information, emotion and thoughts. It is a pattern and group of behaviours from a perpetrator with the deliberate intention to control intimate partner or family relationships. The controlling behaviours are to advantage one member in the relationship. The controlling behaviours include the violation of human rights and liberty such as the deprivation of rights, dignity and resources essential for survival to the victim/survivor. In my psychosocial therapeutic practice with victims/survivors of domestic violence, they described coercive control as being more harmful and long lasting to their mental and general well-being than physical abuse.

It is important to stress that coercive control is not just a gendered issue. Generally, women and men perpetrate equivalent levels of physical and psychological aggression, with the difference that men perpetrate sexual abuse, coercive control and stalking more frequently than women (Swan, C., Gambone, L.J., Caldwell, J.E., Sullivan, T.P., Snow, D.L, 2008). Overall men are the dominant controller. As such, my focus in this article is on men’s behaviour. To maintain control and power in a relationship, men tend to use various strategies that commonly include coercion, threats, intimidation, isolation from families and friends, deprival of basic needs such as food and medical services, monitoring time at and away from work, shopping and visits, online monitoring with sophisticated spyware, controlling what you wear and when you sleep, subordination, that is comparing women against the dominant societal views of how women should be, the quality of their house chores such as cooking, their appearance and sexual performance, humiliation, name calling, emotional abuse, using children and so-called male righteousness and privilege of truth.

The impact of coercive control is debilitating and has been linked to mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, psychosis, personality disorder, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment, financial constraints and substance and/or alcohol use. Substances users are prone to abuse and coercion by an intimate partner. 26% of victims/survivors used substance to reduce the pain of abuse. Substance use coercion involves behaviours from forcing a partner to use substance (27%) to controlling and preventing access to substances and treatment and sabotaging their recovery (60.1%), threatening to report them to the authorities, employers and families (37.5%), and threatening to discredit them and preventing access to support systems. 24.4% reported that they had been afraid to call the police (Phillips, H., Warshaw, C., Kaewken, O., 2020).

Victims/survivors are constantly managing fear and consequences if they cannot comply to the perpetrator’s behaviours. Children are often caught in the middle and alienated against the victim/survivor as they are sometimes called upon to monitor their mother. It is therefore crucial to recognise not only incidents but also patterns of coercive control.

There is much debate in the public and political arenas worldwide as to whether coercive control can be classified as a criminal act due to the complexity of the law surrounding this behaviour. However, many developed nations such as England, Wales, Scotland, America, Canada and Australia have legislated coercive or controlling behaviour as a criminal offence. The new coercive or controlling behaviour criminal offence mean that even if victims do not sustain serious physical violence, but experience extreme psychological and emotional abuse, their perpetrators can be prosecuted under this new criminal law. The offence carries a maximum of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both in England and Wales and a maximum penalty of 7 years in Australia.

But is the law enough to deter coercive control and empower victims/survivors? Although domestic and intimate partner violence is a global problem, several internal and external variables exacerbate the problem within ethnic groups. What is the perception of coercive control from an individualist society to a collective society where cultural values, beliefs, norms and traditions are key to global ethnic community’s ways of thinking and acting? What are the cultural issues? Mauritius, for example, is a dominant ethnic society with multiple ethnic communities living together as a collective society. From my observation and discussions with different community members, I found that Mauritian views about coercive control and criminalisation of same are still very divided, especially among the Indian and Muslim ethnic communities.

There are many social and cultural taboos and stigmas that are prevalent regarding domestic and IPV which need to be talked about and addressed. For example, individuals are expected to conduct themselves according to ingrained social and community codes. Very often they refrain from reporting or seeking help because of the fear of not being believed by people in their internal and external environment and ostracised. They don’t trust the law enforcement authorities either because of gendered Police culture and attitudes towards women, who according to victims do not pay enough attention to their reports or minimise appropriate actions against perpetrators. The family set up is another issue as in most ethnic communities, the female spouse moves into the husband’s house and can’t do anything to shame the family.

Finally, how can we help victims and survivors of coercive control? All the above concerns have serious mental health implications for individuals. This is one more reason why we need to (1) seriously raise awareness and educate the population and relevant authorities about coercive control; (2) start public consultation on the issue to legislate and implement criminal proceedings accordingly and (3) reduce the impact of coercive control on the mental well-being of victims/survivors.

So, how can the public and relevant professionals help? It is vital to recognize the signs and patterns of coercive control by developing a keen interest and appreciation of the gendered context of power in all domestic and intimate relationships. Be aware of the issue by having checking and monitoring coercive control. Be aware of the stigma and taboos and educate others about coercive control and pathways to safety. Finally, it is necessary to familiarise oneself with support services for intimate relationships and refer them for help accordingly.


References

Phillips, H., Warshaw, C., Kaewken, O. (2020). Literature review: Intimate partner violence, substance use coercion and the need for integrated services model. National Centre on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health. USA.

Statistics Mauritius (2022). Domestic Violence down. Retrieved from https://mauritiushindinews.com › ION News, 3 December 2022.

Swan, C., Gambone, L.J., Caldwell, J.E., Sullivan, T.P., Snow, D.L (2008). A Review of Research on Women’s Use of Violence with Male Intimate Partners. Violence and Victims, Vol 23(3), PubMed Central. 301-314.

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