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emotional abuse

Alternative Names 
psychological abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a person uses words or actions to make another person think less or himself or herself. It may be accompanied by physical abuse or sexual abuse.

What is going on in the body? 
Emotional abusers cause their victims to:
  • fear them through violent looks, gestures, or destroying property
  • feel alone and isolated. This is done by controlling what the victims do, whom they see and talk to, and where they go.
  • feel badly about themselves or degraded. This is done through insults, name-calling, making false accusations, and playing games with the victims' minds.
  • be financially dependent on them. The abuser may control the finances so that the victim has little or no access to money. He or she also will prevent the victim from getting or keeping a job. The abuser may make the victim ask or beg for money.
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse has no outward signs or symptoms. It is much harder to detect. Victims of this type of abuse often: What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
Emotional abuse usually occurs when one person wants power and control over another person. Emotional abuse can affect any age or sex. While there is no one type of person who is at risk for abuse, certain factors do put some people at greater risk. These risk factors include:
  • being a female, especially between the ages of 17 and 34
  • being a drug or alcohol abuser or having a partner who is one
  • being pregnant
  • being in the first 5 years of a new marriage or a live-in relationship
  • being unemployed outside the home
  • being socially and emotionally isolated
  • living in poverty, having money problems, living in poor housing conditions, and moving often
  • being in a marriage or relationship where one person is more dominant than the other
What can be done to prevent the condition? 
Everyone should know what resources are available to abuse victims within their community. This can be done by reading books and articles on abuse. It's also important to support and promote training and education on recognising and addressing emotional abuse.

Friends, neighbours, and family members need to ask directly about signs of possible abuse. Talking to the victim and being supportive can make the victim feel less isolated. Showing concern lets the victim know that there is someone to turn to if he or she wants help.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
Since emotional abuse doesn't leave visible scars or bruises, it is can be hard to diagnose. In fact, sometimes the victims don't even see it. They may not feel good about themselves or their relationships, but they don't connect it with how their abusers treat them.

Sometimes a third person will witness the abuse and recognise it right away or over time. Healthcare workers also may be able to diagnose the abuse if they ask the victim the right questions without the abuser being present.

What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Emotional abuse destroys the victim's self esteem so that he or she feels unworthy of love, respect, or friendship.

What are the risks to others? 
There are no risks to others as emotional abuse is not contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
The ultimate goal is for victims to re-establish their lives without the abusers and to get counselling to deal with the emotional scars.

The best thing a third person, such as a doctor, friend, neighbour, or family member, can do is be supportive no matter what the victim chooses. The victim can't be rescued; he or she needs to be the one to make the decision to leave.

If the victim wants help, help him or her find a place to stay that is safe. It could be the home of a friend or relative, or an emergency shelter. Keep in mind that people who are emotionally abusive can be violent, even if they haven't caused physical harm up to this point.

Individual psychotherapy and group therapy are very important. The victim needs to realise that he or she has value as a person. And he or she needs to learn how to recognise abuse. Talking to people with similar experiences is also very helpful. The victim needs to heal mentally so that he or she will never be part of another abusive relationship.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
The abused person may have to move out of his or her home and find other living arrangements.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
If the emotionally abused person has moved from his or her home, permanent arrangements may have to be made. The person may be able to return to his or her home if the abuser has got help and it is felt that he or she will be safe.

How is the condition monitored? 
The victim may not be able to monitor the abuse because he or she may not recognise it when it happens. A family or friend may help to monitor emotional abuse.

Author: Elizabeth Smith, BA
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 13/01/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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