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OPINION: Domestic Violence should be treated as a mental health issue

on November 11, 2018

Our approach to solving domestic violence has been to arrest, jail, then release. This is not a long-term solution. Domestic violence is an epidemic that should be treated as more of a cultural and mental health problem.

We have to try a new approach to solving this crisis. If we treat domestic violence as a mental health issue, we can find the resources to treat it. If the perpetrators of the domestic violence crime are treated in a heath institution, instead of a prison, they might have the opportunity to seek help for their anger. I want to be clear that I am not absolving people of their actions.

Susun Kim, executive director of the West Family Justice Center in Richmond, agrees.

“If you think about obesity, there’s a public health issue. You don’t just look at the individual,” she says. “We know that in certain neighborhoods we have obesity. Why? There are social determinants.  Similarly, there are lots of different social determinants to violence, right? Poverty is a huge factor. We know racism is still a factor. The whole idea is to bring public health plans to violence prevention.”

The first thing you notice when you walk into the family justice center is the open space. The receptionist is sitting behind a desk, not a glass barricade. Multiple languages are spoken.

Kim’s goal is to make accused people feel they are part of the community, and that’s a first step in the healing process.

The Richmond Police Department responded to 756 domestic violence complaints between January 2017 and September 2018; however, authorities believe this number is conservative because many victims do not report domestic violence cases.

“The person who was harming you is usually a family member in your home. So those dynamics make it very challenging and difficult,” says Kim. She says that when the assailant is someone who you are married to, “a lot of times our victims are really confused and they’re in crisis. They don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Undocumented families, refugees and foreigners often keep injuries a secret because it’s culturally acceptable or they distrust the authorities. Many undocumented families and refugees fear immigration authorities will come knocking on their door if they make a complaint.

The family justice center tries to help all victims.  Detective Robert Branch of the Domestic Violence Unit at the family justice center says victims can get help here even if they don’t want to deal with the police. “There’s still an abundant amount of services that they can receive at the family justice center. They can get medical and legal aid, safe housing, all kinds of services here at their disposal.”

I believe him. And based on my interviews with him and Kim, I want to urge all families experiencing domestic violence to reach out for help.

I personally can attest to the trauma of living with domestic violence. As a child and throughout my teens, I lived in a home where domestic violence was occurring like clockwork. In the early 90s, when my family relocated as refugees to the U.S., my father had angry outbursts where he screamed, ripped off his shirt, and charged at my mother. But my mother never sought help because of cultural pressure and fear of losing her children to the authorities.

I witnessed my mother’s struggle between a violent husband and a system that threatened to take away her kids. In early 2014, my father was finally diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which had caused the angry outbursts and aggressive behavior. My father suffered from trauma during the Iran-Iraq war. He served in the army for several years and then refused to fight. For his desertion, he was imprisoned for three years and tortured.

An earlier diagnosis could have helped my father, spared my mother, and saved me and my six siblings from a childhood of fear.

(Wesaam Al-Badry is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.)


  1. Earl Richards on November 11, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    Domestic violence is not a mental health issue, it is a criminal act.

  2. Deven on November 11, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Ditto Earl. If you look down that same rabbit hole, you’ll find that every criminal act is a mental health issue. The criminal either doesn’t understand the law or doesn’t respect it.

    • Earl Richards on November 12, 2018 at 11:24 am

      Not all mental health issues are criminal acts.

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