Emotional Abuse Is As Harmful As Physical Abuse, Study Shows, Because Not All Scars Are Visible

"Not all scars are visible" is a frequent refrain in discussions of abuse, and according to recent research, invisible scars can run just as deep as the ones left by bloody noses and broken bones. Researchers at McGill University have found that emotional abuse can be as harmful as physical in the long run, even though the consequences may not be apparent at first.

Scientists analyzed decades of data from a summer research camp studying low-income children between the ages of 5 and 13, and of the 2,300 children who passed through the camp, researchers found that around half had documented experiences with abuse. Despite the common beliefs that factors like gender and ethnicity affect how they react to maltreatment, testing these assumptions showed that there are surprisingly consistent consequences for survivors of all backgrounds, no matter what kinds of abuse they experienced.

"It seems as though different types of child abuse have equivalent, broad, and universal effects," first author David Vachon concluded.

Despite the popular assumption that physical abuse is the "worst," as if there were some sort of abuse hierarchy, psychological abuse clearly affects its survivors just as deeply. The NSPCC writes that victims frequently suffer from other kinds of abuse at the same time, but that isn't always the case. Without the physical hallmarks that come from other kinds of maltreatment, it's notoriously difficult to get an exact estimate on the number of emotional abuse victims — partially because the victims themselves may not realize what's happening. However, research conducted in the 1990s estimated that up to seven percent of American children experience psychological maltreatment, and a later survey of 1,000 women found that 36 percent reported some sort of emotional abuse in their lives.

This, of course, prompts the question: What does emotional abuse entail? Typically, it's defined as deliberate, ongoing emotional maltreatment — essentially, it's psychological warfare. Abusers are ruthlessly manipulative and often encourage dependence from their victims, making them feel as if there's no way out. It sometimes, but not always, includes verbal abuse such as name-calling, blaming, or the silent treatment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, survivors of abuse frequently exhibit depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and high-risk behaviors later in life. Furthermore, the stress of chronic abuse may make survivors more vulnerable to disorders like PTSD if they undergo another traumatic event, and research consistently shows that abuse and neglect increase the likelihood of smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse as survivors grow older. Physical wounds eventually heal and words leave little visible damage, but victims of all kinds of abuse are affected by their experiences for the rest of their lives.

As Sarah Hosseini, emotional abuse survivor and subject of the photo essay "Unseen Scars," writes, "Being a survivor means you heal, but the wound is still there."

Images: Kristin Schmit, kmgraeter/Flickr