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Domestic Violence and Traumatic Brain Injury: The Chilling Truth of This Hits Home

A new documentary shines a light on the links between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and domestic violence. This Hits Home features stories from survivors of domestic violence and researchers investigating how repeated TBIs lead to lifelong neurologic impairment, including dementia and a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Millions of women experience traumatic brain injuries (TBI) due to domestic violence (DV) every year. While in recent decades researchers have begun studying the long-term impact of repeated TBIs on athletes and veterans, the relationship between TBI and domestic violence remains critically under-researched.

This Hits Home, a powerful new documentary from award-winning actor and director Sydney Scotia, shines an unflinching light on the experiences of women impacted by domestic violence. In addition to testimonials from survivors, the documentary features doctors discussing the latest research on the connection between TBI, life-long changes in memory, mood, and other cognitive functions, and a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For many survivors of domestic violence, the impact of TBI on thinking and memory lasts long after the abuse ends.

We spoke with Scotia about making the documentary, the importance of research in increasing our understanding of TBI and CTE, what can be done to support survivors of domestic violence, and more.

Content Warning: The below trailer and this article contain discussions of domestic violence.

The Domestic Violence Hotline offers free and confidential 24/7 support at:

Watch the trailer for This Hits Home.

From Conversation to Film: The Making of This Hits Home

This Hits Home has been long in the making for Scotia. “After bringing a donation to a domestic violence shelter when I was younger, I was devastated to learn about the sheer number of women hiding in silence with concussions or TBIs,” she says.

Wanting to draw attention to the complicated, lifelong impact of domestic violence, Scotia began interviewing medical professionals, policymakers, and survivors about domestic violence-related TBI (DV-TBI).

“By making this documentary, I was aiming to break the silence on a hidden epidemic to generate awareness and bring to light the reality of DV,” Scotia says. “I wanted to empower women who are safe and ready to share their stories, leading people to action on both a personal and societal level.”

Scotia’s connection with the many brave survivors she interviewed over the course of six years led to the creation of This Hits Home. “At the end of the day, I felt a responsibility to all of these people who are working so hard to raise awareness for DV-TBI,” Scotia says. “I felt a responsibility to have their stories heard because they were so generous to share their stories with me.”

The Silent Epidemic of DV-TBI

One in four American women will experience severe violence from a domestic partner in their lifetime, often resulting in significant trauma to the head and neck. Over 75% of domestic violence survivors suffer single or repeated traumatic brain injuries, most of which go unreported. Despite these alarming statistics, DV-TBI is still critically under-researched.

“I don’t think the connection [between TBI and DV] has been made on a wide scale,” Scotia says. This is due in part to the lack of awareness and education about the signs and symptoms of TBI, particularly with regard to instances of domestic violence.

“Few law enforcement and medical professionals think to ask about concussions when showing up to the scene of a domestic dispute or when a woman walks into the ER, and many survivors don’t know to think about that, either,” Scotia says. “Everyone is focused on the visible injuries—we’re not so focused on the invisible injury, which is TBI.”

Talking about domestic violence is difficult, and many women may struggle to share their stories due to stigma, the threat of partner retaliation, and lack of accessible medical care. Raising awareness of the signs of domestic abuse can help more women come forward and receive the care and support they need—but the right systems must be in place for that to happen.

“Until there are major institutions set up to help victims of DV, I don’t think we’re going to have completely accurate data [about the impact of TBI],” Scotia says. “People aren’t going to want to report their situation or know what to do if they’ve suffered a concussion if there is no system in place to help them.”

How Domestic Violence Affects the Brain: TBI and CTE

Repeated TBIs can lead to a fatal, incurable neurodegenerative condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Research on CTE often centers on military service members and professional athletes due to the high rates of TBIs these groups experience. However, there is a significant research gap when it comes to survivors of domestic violence who are at increased risk for this devastating condition.

“Symptoms of CTE can include memory and thinking problems, confusion, personality changes, erratic behavior, depression, and aggression,” Scotia says. “CTE can lead to impulsive and aggressive behavior, sometimes contributing to a cycle of abuse—and it can only be diagnosed after death.”

The cycle of abuse is explored in This Hits Home with María Garay-Serratos, MSW, PhD. Dr. Garay-Serratos’ mother was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her father, who was himself a victim of his own father’s violence. Years later, Dr. Garay-Serratos connected the two events to chart how DV-TBI directly contributes to the overall cycle of abuse.

Scotia hopes the documentary will help break this cycle by prompting more research to increase our understanding of DV-TBI and CTE, as well as fueling awareness efforts to better support DV survivors. “My main goal for This Hits Home was to start a global conversation around and ultimately eradicate domestic violence,” Scotia says. “If we’re able to talk more openly about DV, my hope is that all relevant stakeholders will be activated and mobilized to inspire and effect change.”

The Importance of Research and Advocacy

We know that all neurodegenerative diseases are connected and that research discoveries in one area will lead to insights, treatments, and cures in others. “One of the goals of making this documentary was to encourage far more research,” Scotia says. “Over the past six years of making this film, I’ve seen more articles [about DV-TBI] published. I’ve been happy to see a little bit more awareness around the topic, but right now, we definitely don’t know enough.”

This Hits Home highlights one research goal that will accelerate our understanding of how to diagnose and treat DV-TBI and CTE. “We need women’s brain banks,” Scotia says.

Brain banks collect brain and tissue samples from donors after their death, distributing these samples to researchers and labs across the United States. However, current brain banks do not have enough samples from women with documented histories of DV-TBI and CTE, making it difficult to research the link between the two.

“It seems obvious that women who suffer repeated TBIs from DV are going to get the same neurodegenerative brain diseases as men,” Scotia says. “But it’s hard to distinguish whether Alzheimer’s disease, CTE, post-concussion syndrome, multiple mental health struggles, or another disease or condition is the main issue for them. Add the fact that nobody wants to talk about DV, and we’re getting very little research on women’s brains.”

In addition to funding research to better understand the connections between DV-TBI and CTE, people can support survivors by educating themselves about the signs of domestic violence and TBI. Spreading awareness about DV-TBI requires active, empathetic listening. “Rallying support for survivors, advocating for policy changes, or simply reaching out to a friend are all ways people can get involved,” Scotia says.

You can rent or buy This Hits Home today by clicking here.

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