Relationship Abuse - Mental Health

Tips by Theme or Topic

Download / print

  1. Dangers of Unhealthy Relationship Behaviors
    1. Relationship abuse, also known as intimate partner violence or domestic violence, affects more than 12 million people every year. Unhealthy relationship behaviors can escalate to relationship abuse over time.  
  2. Increased Risk for Mental Health Challenges
    1. Relationship abuse puts victims at increased risk for mental health conditions like depression, substance misuse, future unhealthy or abusive relationships (as perpetrator or victim), and/or suicide. 
  3. Challenge Stereotypes and Show Backstories
    1. Storytelling can challenge stereotypes about perpetrators and survivors of relationship abuse, avoid harmful depictions of violence, help viewers understand the forms of abuse that are often precursors to physical or sexual violence, and spotlight ways survivors can seek safety, justice, and/or mental health support.

This section was written in partnership with The Hotline and One Love Foundation.

Storytelling Tips

Diversify Representation
  • Show that anyone can experience intimate partner violence or be abusive. Showing that anyone can experience or perpetuate relationship abuse helps reduce stigma and encourages help-seeking. 
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
  • Show people who are currently experiencing relationship abuse as well as survivors talking openly to friends, primary care physicians or mental health professionals about their situation. Fear, embarrassment, and guilt can prevent victims from speaking up, putting them at increased risk for distress, substance misuse, and suicide. Showing supportive conversations can encourage viewers to open up, realize that they are not alone, and get help.
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
  • Acknowledge that treatment is different for everyone. There isn’t one treatment plan for survivors of abuse. Show that healing requires many steps, such as safely leaving residence or place of work, self-care, counseling, legal aid, or transportation, and that support isn’t one size fits all. 
  • Show that healing is more than just reliving or recounting the trauma over and over again. Misconceptions about what will happen in therapy and how treatment works can prevent people from asking for help. 
  • Focus on safer solutions, not only the problem. Media storylines sometimes focus on the pain and fear caused by intimate partner violence but are less specific about how characters or cast members safely remove themselves from that situation and find support. Showing people experiencing unhealthy or abusive behaviors get to safety can empower viewers who might be in a similar situation.
  • Focus on seeking help before a situation escalates to physical or sexual violence. Show characters who trust their gut and seek help early when something is off in their own relationships or in the relationships of those around them. 
  • Spotlight advances in technology that can help people experiencing abuse find help and leave the situation safely. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has suggestions for covering an internet trail when doing research on getting help. Domestic violence hotlines can also help survivors create a safety plan to explain who they are talking to or calling if their outreach is discovered by an abusive partner. Additionally, shelters have implemented systems to protect victims from threatening partners. Storylines can help educate viewers about these options so they can develop their own plan to get to safety.
Represent the Causes of Mental Health Challenges Accurately
  • Highlight the ramifications of psychological or verbal abuse on one’s mental health, so viewers understand the impact of abuse and how abuse can be a risk factor for mental health conditions. 
  • Don’t oversimplify the connection between abuse and suicide. Survivors of trauma who attempt suicide are often dealing with multiple challenges at once. These can include pre-existing mental health conditions, substance misuse, abusive relationships, and financial problems. Highlighting how characters or cast members use their support network and treatment to tackle their challenges holistically can help viewers dealing with similar issues. 
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
  • Don’t inadvertently portray suicide as a solution to bullying. While it’s best to avoid making a connection between bullying and suicide altogether, if both of those themes exist in your storyline, avoid implying that suicide is a solution for getting back at individuals who haven’t intervened. Young people may not fully grasp the finality of death and might see suicide as an effective way to stop the cycle.
  • Limit depictions of physical abuse. Bullying can lead to trauma that can impact overall long-term mental health. Watching depictions of severe, violent bullying behaviors could be triggering for individuals coping with this type of trauma. It’s recommended to only include depictions of graphic incidents of bullying when the storyline requires it, and consult with an advisor to ensure the scenes are safe for audiences. 
Move Past Stereotypes
  • Move past stereotypes that normalize violence and discourage help-seeking. 
  • Not all partners who abuse are male or have a history of violent behavior. Not all victims of IPV are from abusive backgrounds or passive. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship with someone who may not seem like the “type” to be violent. Seeing stories that challenge these tropes can help viewers identify “non-stereotypical” relationship abuse and encourage them to speak up.
  • Consider using terms like “unhealthy relationship” or “relationship abuse” instead of domestic violence. According to the nonprofit organization One Love, when people hear about domestic violence, they are likely to think it won’t happen to them, and they may not recognize that they were in an abusive situation. This is likely due to stigma associated with the term and the assumption domestic violence only happens in marriages. Using more accessible language can help encourage help-seeking. 
  • Misrepresentation of abusive behaviors, like stalking, as romantic or attractive can reinforce a belief that those behaviors are acceptable. 
  • Media portrayals of domestic violence as humorous or comical may reduce the likelihood that victims speak up. 
  • Lastly, males who believe that women are not equally respected, because of cultural norms or media portrayals, are more likely to abuse their female partners. 
  • Emphasize that alcohol is not an excuse for abuse. Storytelling can find the balance of highlighting the role alcohol plays in relationship abuse while avoiding any suggestion that drugs or alcohol can be a cause or an excuse for violence.
Spotlight Support from Friends and Family
  • Normalize people talking about breakups before they happen and show characters helping loved ones create a safety plan, even in trusted relationships where there hasn’t been known physical violence. This can help viewers understand ways they can support people experiencing relationship abuse early on.
  • Show bystanders taking action. Avoid narratives where bystanders — neighbors, friends, family members — remain complicit by watching or suspecting abuse and not taking action. Use storytelling to model positive behaviors like intervening, reporting, and supporting, especially as it relates to the victim’s mental health.
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
  • Avoid graphic portrayals of sexual violence or aggressive sex scenes that could provide a blueprint for real-world violence. Some experts believe that watching this type of violence in entertainment might trigger or inform potential perpetrators. There is also the chance this type of content can (re)traumatize survivors, leading to more serious mental health struggles. These depictions can also create an inaccurate stereotype of what relationship abuse looks like that might prevent a viewer from recognizing real abuse in their own life. 
  • Don’t normalize the concept that women are subservient or unlikely to speak up about abuse. While it’s true that most victims of domestic violence do not report that abuse, storylines showing victims taking action can empower others to do the same or reinforce to abusive partners that there can be consequences. 


Relationship abuse: A pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power over another person, such as a partner, friend, or family member, which can reveal  itself in many ways. Relationship abuse can include physical abuse, emotional and verbal abuse, sexual abuse, sexual coercion, reproductive coercion, financial abuse, digital abuse, coercive control, and/or stalking. 

Domestic violence: Also known as intimate partner violence (IPV), domestic violence covers a similar range of abuse but refers primarily to partners who are married or cohabitating, and may also reference other violence within a household, like child abuse and elder abuse. 

Unhealthy behaviors: Many unhealthy behaviors will occur before any relationship escalates to relationship abuse. These small, often normalized behaviors are all around us. They don’t necessarily mean that a relationship will become abusive; however, they can create a pattern of abuse. Common unhealthy behaviors include guilting, deflecting responsibility, isolation, manipulation, belittling, volatility, possessiveness, sabotage, and betrayal. 

Intimate partner violence (IPV) in any form is a serious public health concern that can result in long-term physical and mental health challenges across several identity groups. Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) can have a negative mental health impact on children. In fact, research shows a connection between child abuse and increased risk of mental health challenges and distress later in life. The potential for the cycle of violence to continue from childhood is very high, but not inevitable, especially with prevention education.  

Ultimately, anyone can experience abuse or act in an abusive manner. Relationship abuse occurs in all races, ages, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, disabilities, and levels of education. Some potential risk factors for domestic and intimate partner violence include childhood abuse, financial issues, a previous history of abuse, and substance misuse. Children who are abused or witness abuse may believe violence is a reasonable way to resolve conflict. Females who witness domestic violence as children are more likely to be victimized by intimate partners. 

Most perpetrators and victims of domestic violence do not report the abuse or seek help. There are various reasons why victims or survivors may not report abuse, such as fear of not being believed, fears that police or others within the justice system might make the situation worse or not take the situation seriously, fear they might experience discrimination due to race, sexual orientation, or immigration status, or even the fear that their abusive partner might just get a warning, and the abuse could get worse. Friends, family members, colleagues, roommates, and healthcare professionals are usually the first individuals with the opportunity to identify signs of domestic violence. 

Facts & Stats

Approximately 35% of female IPV survivors and 11% of male survivors experience physical injury from abuse. Over 1 in 2 trans or nonbinary individuals have experienced relationship abuse at some point in their lifetime. 
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. Over half of female homicide victims in the United States are killed by a current or former intimate partner. In 2017, Black women were killed at rates 2.5 times higher than white women. 
IPV is also associated with increased prevalence of mental health challenges, specifically depression, substance misuse, and suicide.
1 in 15 children are exposed to IPV each year. Overall, 26% of women and 15% of men who experience relationship abuse in their lifetimes first experience these forms of violence before age 18. 
Over 10% of female identifying teens and 7% of U.S. teens will experience physical dating violence, and 1 in 8 females experience sexual dating violence each year. 

Download / print

more in part 6