1 in 4 survey respondents who gave birth at The Ottawa Hospital during the 2020 spring lockdown experienced abusive behaviour from their partners before, during or after pregnancy

Posted on Monday, June 14, 2021

Survey results from 216 people who gave birth at The Ottawa Hospital between March and June 2020 showed that 52 (24 percent) experienced controlling or abusive behaviour from their partners during their perinatal period (one year pre-pregnancy, during pregnancy, and one year after birth)

Dr. Kari Sampsel and Dr. Katherine Muldoon

Dr. Kari Sampsel (left) and Dr. Katherine Muldoon

This is the first study to look at intimate partner violence (IPV) in pregnant and postpartum individuals during the pandemic. The study was published in BMJ Open.

Of the 1,568 individuals who gave birth at the hospital during the March-June study period, 613 agreed to be contacted for research purposes and 216 completed the study. The researchers used a broad definition of IPV that included controlling behaviour as well as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The most common forms of IPV reported by study participants were controlling behaviours (insisting on knowing where they are at all times, often suspicious that they are unfaithful) or emotional abuse (insulting, belittling, intimidating, or threatening). Thankfully, there were few cases of physical and sexual assault identified in the study.

“Controlling behaviours are warning signs that can escalate to other forms of intimate partner violence. Identifying people at this stage allows households to get support and address these behaviours before they can cause more harm,” said epidemiologist Dr. Katherine Muldoon, the study’s lead author and senior research associate at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

In this study, socioeconomic status was the most important risk factor for IPV. Study participants were three times more likely to experience IPV if their household income was below Ottawa’s median of $119,440 per year.

“The link between income and intimate partner violence is well established,” said Dr. Kari Sampsel, emergency physician and Medical Director of The Ottawa Hospital Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “Financial stress can affect stable housing, having enough food, and a sense of accomplishment. People get stressed when they can’t control those things, and if they don’t have healthy outlets for that stress they can become more controlling of their partner.”

Previous studies conducted before the pandemic estimated that three to nine percent of people experience IPV during the perinatal period, and that over 30 percent of women experience IPV over their lifetime. However, these results can be difficult to compare as definitions of IPV can vary between studies.

This research was done in collaboration between the hospital’s Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Newborn Care and Emergency Medicine departments and the Obstetrics Maternal and Newborn Investigations (OMNI) Research Group.

The researchers encourage individuals who are pregnant or post-partum  to tell people they trust if they are experiencing IPV, including their obstetrician and pre-natal team. They can also get help through The Ottawa Hospital Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program.

“While this study does not have information on the immediate changes in abuse and controlling behaviours following the COVID-19 state of emergency, it does show us that almost a quarter of  pregnant and post-partum individuals in our community are experiencing abusive behaviour during the pandemic, and that concerns us.” said Dr. Muldoon. “Pregnant people are very engaged with the healthcare system, so this could be a good time for health care providers to ask them about intimate partner violence. Connecting pregnant people with a social worker or services in the community could support families and prevent further violence.”

Resources for those affected by sexual assault or intimate partner violence:

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