Margo Batsie, member services coordinator at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, shared an egregious example of a psychiatric system failure when she testified before the state Committee on Labor Commerce, Research and Economic Development on April 18.
She described an instance in which a perpetrator, out on bail for assaulting a partner, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and the victim made it clear to hospital staff that there was still danger. Yet, during hospital discharge planning, staff asked the victim to allow the perpetrator to come home to the house they shared, Batsie said. The evening of the perpetrator’s release, the victim was killed in their house.
It seems obvious that mental health clinicians should be required to receive training about how best to respond to situations involving victims or offenders of domestic and sexual violence. But they are not. One bill offers a good starting point for change.
LD 1238, “An Act to Improve Professional Training for Licensed Mental Health Clinicians,” sponsored by Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, would require psychologists, clinical professional counselors and clinical social workers to show, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, that they have successfully completed a minimum of 15 contact hours of coursework in partner abuse screening and referral and intervention strategies.
The bill is scheduled to be discussed in committee Friday and deserves an “ought to pass” vote.
An estimated 20 to 30 percent of women and 7.5 percent of men in the United States have been physically and/or sexually abused by an intimate partner at some point in their adult lives, according to the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experiencing violence increases victims’ risk for serious mental health consequences, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder. The effect on someone’s health can continue years after abuse ends. One study found that, on average, more than half of women seen in a range of mental health settings are currently or have been abused by an intimate partner.
Mental health clinicians are an essential part of the community response to domestic and sexual violence. Improving their knowledge — about how to identify people at risk and how to respond to ensure safety and recovery — has the potential to lead to reduced rates of violence and homicide.
Victims also have recognized the need for improvement. Ellen Ridley, when she was employed by the domestic violence project Family Crisis Services, and Amy Coha, a licensed clinical social worker from the University of New England, researched how mental health counselors enhance or compromise the well-being of domestic violence survivors. They interviewed 103 Maine survivors, 75 percent of whom were in severe to extreme danger, about their experience with a total of 177 Maine counselors. They learned many counselors have not fully adopted practices that experts deem helpful.
Only 23 percent of counselors performed a written screening for the presence of domestic abuse at the beginning of counseling; 57 percent conducted a verbal screening. Only 42 percent of counselors identified the local domestic violence support agency as a resource, and just 55 percent helped survivors plan for their physical and emotional safety.
The bill has the support of the attorney general’s office, the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the Maine Department of Public Safety and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Also, the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel’s 2012 report recommended that mental health clinicians receive education and training around domestic and sexual violence. We add our support as well. Improving mental health clinicians’ understanding of and response to domestic violence victims and offenders has the potential to save lives.