In this column, we examine the mental health issues in the context
of social, culture, and physiological concerns of the Iranian community


Part 1-Causes and Repercussions

A 2011 report by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that children have  increasingly witnessed domestic violence in the US and the world. The history of abuse and abusive behaviors of adults or children are as old as the human race and it seems to occur everywhere in the world.  But, in the past, due to ethical and social inhibitions, very few incidents of abuse were reported.  At the same time the societal norms favored ignoring or accepting it or at best treating it as a personal or familial matter. Consequently, research projects on the subject of abuse were very limited.
 Over the years however, due to the advancement of democracy, people’s awareness, and the increased scientific knowledge about the emotional harms to the victims, there has been a steady growth of such reports and the research studies.  In fact, during the past two decades, there has been an explosion of concerted efforts around the world aimed at expanding the research, educating the public, and discovering effective ways of prevention and treatment of abuse. One example is the cases of child abuse by the clergy that over the past decade has been making headlines, more so than ever before. Most of theses cases reveal a long history of ongoing abuse that was ignored and kept in secret by other clergies or even by the family members who feared retaliation or public embarrassment.
 As the research continued to expand and greater number of people began to report child, elder, or spousal abuse, the magnitude of the problem became more and more apparent. Incidents of maltreatment, neglect, or child abuse appear to be the most commonly reported or discovered event.  These days, many studies declare the child abuse problems at national emergency levels. 
 Recently, the American Psychological Association reported several demographic changes including close to 50% increase in child birth rate, 300% increase in the number of working mothers with children, and 400% rise in the number of unmarried mothers. Similar pattern is reported for divorce rate (almost quadrupled).  Factors such as divorce, poverty, and multi-child households, along with other psychosocial pressures have had a high impact on increasing the family stress and on limiting their access to resources. At the same time, such factors tend to increase the likelihood of abuse in the family. 
 Other elements such as social and cultural beliefs, personal characteristics as well as the level of stress can contribute to the increase in abusive behaviors.  Most ethnic groups such as Iranian Immigrants, have their own unique views of the definition and the seriousness of abuse in the family. Our beliefs and attitudes influence the rate of abusive behaviors in our families.  Also, our ability to tolerate stress can determine the degree of our abusive behaviors.  Facing the transitional pressures of adjusting to the American society is an added source of stress for most immigrants.  Financial problems, English language barriers, or poor trans-cultural parental skills can further compromise stress-coping abilities and emotional control of the abusers. 
 In general, certain personality types are more abusive than others.  Childhood experiences coupled with their unique temperaments contribute to the formation of such abusive styles.  Additionally, for those who have such characteristics, certain influences can cause them to be more abusive than others.  These influences include anything that impairs their judgment, thinking, or mood. For some people even a bad night’s sleep can set them off. However, for most abusers, drugs or alcohol often set the stage for their abusive acts. At the same time, certain circumstances can increase the likelihood of abusive behaviors. For example, when the abuser is upset, the presence of a ready victim makes abuse more likely and having access to weapons can turn violence to homicide.
 Physiological changes can also contribute to abusive tendencies.  For example, studies show that the pre-menstrual period is associated with higher rates of child abuse, accidents, suicides, crimes, and violence in women. Still, other medical conditions including brain abnormalities can also cause aggressive or violent behaviors in men or women.
 The profile of abusers varies greatly from one to the next. But, there are certain life experiences and/or characteristics that are more frequently observed among this group. For example, studies show that most abused children grow up becoming abusers.  Most chronic abusers often lack cohesive sense of personal or sexual identity.  They tend to have low self-image and poor self-esteem. Some try to feel accepted or validated by dominating or controlling their victims.  Many of them have loose impulse controls and are easily annoyed or excited.  
 Those abusers who have been abused as a child appear to identify with their abusers and through the abuse of others they may compulsively seek to re-live their own past experience of abuse.  Thus, by tormenting others they unconsciously try to deal with their own experiences of guilt, hurt, anger, or other unfinished businesses related to their own sufferings.
 Most abusers have low tolerance of stress or frustration and lack skills to cope with stress assertively and healthily. Many have low interpersonal or social skills.  For instance, most wife batterers have difficulty forming or maintaining healthy intimate relations with women. For that reason, some can have steady relations with others but not with their own mates.
 The key to reducing the abuse is for the family and the society to educate their members and to help them to recognize signs of abuse and to handle such cases with dignity and fairness.  Unfortunately in many societies, especially in the developing nations such as our own culture, the general public is tolerant of most kinds of abuse and only extreme cases tend to be brought to the public attention.  In the past, the same social attitude was present in almost all societies including the United States.  But, the advances in scientific research and the pioneering efforts of various social groups and organizations eventually led to major changes in public attitudes toward abuse and the acceptance and appreciation of the magnitude of its harm to the individual and the society.
 As the general awareness and understanding of this phenomena continued to grow, more and more victims and witnesses came forward and reported the incidents of abuse.  Such social openness led to much higher and more realistic accounts of abuse in the society.  For example, in 1960s the number of battered children, as estimated by prominent researchers, was put at about 300.  By the turn of the century, the same estimate rose to greater than 3 million.
The denial or tolerance of abusive behaviors are most prevalent among ethnic groups where other members of the family often tend to ignore the problem or view the child or spousal abuse as a family matter and not as a social and humanistic issue.  In the next article we will examine more specific forms of family abuse such as maltreatments of spouses or children.