Intimate partner violence takes a huge toll on the physical and mental health of millions around the globe and results in global economic costs reaching into the trillions every year, according to experts. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently partnered with the nonprofit organization Saving Promise to create a “Learning Lab” that will foster research and prevention to address this widespread public health problem.
To help launch the effort, Harvard and Saving Promise convened a May 8 roundtable at the nearby Countway Library at which roughly 30 leaders from academia, medicine, government, business, foundations, and professional associations explored the many dimensions of domestic violence, the need for evidence-based prevention strategies, and the role that the public and private sectors can play to shift the focus from intervening after domestic violence occurs to preventing it from happening in the first place.
In opening remarks, Harvard dean Dr. Michelle Williams called intimate partner violence one of the most complex problems facing women, children, and families. “It’s an issue that, throughout my career, I have found deeply disturbing because of the scope of the problem, the tenacity of the problem, and the fact that it is one of the most pressing multigenerational problems we live with domestically and globally,” she said.
Ms. L.Y. Marlow, founder and CEO of Saving Promise, described how she decided to create the organization in 2007 after her daughter was nearly strangled to death. Her attacker was the father of their infant daughter named Promise—who was lying next to her on the bed at the time. Until then, Ms. Marlow said, five generations of women in her family, including herself, had kept silent over the course of 60 years about their struggles with domestic violence.
Another domestic violence survivor, Dr. Gloria Mayfield Banks— an Elite Executive National Sales Director with Mary Kay Cosmetics and a motivational speaker—also kept silent about abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. When Dr. Banks was in her early 20s, she and her husband were both attending Harvard Business School. On her first day of classes at HBS, Dr. Banks had to wear makeup to cover a black eye. It took her years to leave the marriage. “Many people don’t talk about [domestic violence],” she said. “And when you do talk about it, you are judged.”
Dr. James Mercy, director of the Division of Violence Prevention at the CDC, offered sobering statistics. For example, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are exposed to severe forms of intimate partner violence during their lifetimes, he said. And those exposed to intimate partner violence often go on to suffer a wide range of other health problems, including mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, chronic diseases, and drug use. “This is a huge public health problem,” he said.
Dr. Michael Yogman, chair of the Child Mental Health Task Force for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, talked about the damaging “toxic stress” among children exposed to domestic violence and the importance of helping both children and their parents buffer and manage the effects of such stress.
Ms. Gaelle Prophete of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank that conducts cost-benefit analyses to find the best solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems, said that because domestic violence is such a huge problem—affecting roughly 305 million women around the world every year—addressing it more effectively could save the world billions of dollars.
A small team of researchers from Harvard Chan School is currently working to shape the Learning Lab, according to Dr. Bizu Gelaye, research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology. The lab will be a multi-year, multidisciplinary research and development initiative to address intimate partner violence by assessing its root causes; researching, implementing, and evaluating evidence-based prevention strategies; boosting communication about the issue; and promoting change in how the issue is addressed by policymakers, public health experts, and clinicians.