NIAAA’S Dr. Ted George
“A fourth of all men and a third of all women will be raped or stalked by an intimate partner in their lifetime. And nearly half of all men and women experience psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime,” said NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak. “The statistics are sobering.”
Tabak gave opening remarks at “Respect Is the Word—Join the Conversation,” a day-long discussion of intimate partner violence and bullying. The event featured presentations about the biology of violence, NIH-funded discoveries on intimate partner violence and how bullying affects the workplace.
Dr. Ted George, a staff scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, asserted that people who lose control of their emotions are biologically different than others who have better control of their emotions.
Many of these people feel as though they’re not in control. In response, they try to control other areas of their lives. This may include trying to control others through intimidation as well as physical and emotional abuse, he noted.
George believes that these people tend to perceive more threats in the world than do others. When these controlling people are threatened, they can become impulsive. Their responses to certain situations tend to be out of proportion.
“It’s like they’re dropping an atomic bomb on an ant hill,” said George, referring to their extreme emotions.
He attributes this type of behavior to a group of neurons in the brain region called the “periaqueductal gray.” Among other functions, this area is associated with fear and anxiety and is the key brain region mediating the fight or flight response. George likened it to a switch that turns emotions such as anger, fear and depression on and off.
In certain situations, these strong responses can be a good thing. Reacting quickly to legitimate threats can mean the difference between life and death. However, these responses become detrimental when an individual reacts to a minor event as if it were a threat or if an individual responds to nearly all events as if they were threats.
NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak opened the day-long conversation about intimate partner violence and bullying.
This highly reactive behavior affects families, as well. When children see violence, they may become more reactive and vigilant themselves, he said.
Next, Dr. Valerie Maholmes highlighted NIH-funded research on intimate domestic violence’s effect on victims and children.
“Intimate partner violence is a pattern of assaultive or coercive behavior including physical and sexual assaultive behavior as well as economic coercion,” said Maholmes, chief, Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Domestic violence affects health in ways that go beyond physical injuries.
“A child who witnesses violence is affected just as much as if he or she experienced that physical act,” she said.
Maholmes said that children exposed to domestic violence may lose the ability to feel empathy and also may feel socially isolated. In 30-60 percent of domestic violence cases, children may also experience maltreatment.
“What we’re finding more and more in the research we support is that being a victim of physical and psychological abuse is a strong and consistent predictor of perpetration,” she said.
Maholmes said NICHD supports a variety of research to inform policies seeking to prevent domestic violence.
Jessica Hawkins, NIH Civil coordinator, and Danny Dickerson, accessibility consultant in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, defined workplace bullying and described resources available to NIH employees.
“A child who witnesses violence is affected just as much as if he or she experienced that physical act,” said Dr. Valerie Maholmes.
Photos: Bill Branson
“Workplace bullying can take the form of open verbal abuse, hidden verbal abuse or deliberate acts or inactions with the intent to demean and/or isolate a target,” Hawkins said. “It tends to be repetitive, long-lasting and escalates in severity.”
At NIH, there are a number of resources available, including the NIH Civil program, a resource that coordinates a response to intimidation, threats and workplace violence. She said the name Civil isn’t an acronym. It was chosen to represent the goal of civility in the workplace.
The Civil Program consists of response coordinators, a response team and an advisory committee. Depending on the situation, the response team will consult other internal organizations to assist in devising a strategy for responding to complex workplace situations.
When there’s bullying related to a protected class, the EDI office will handle the response. A protected class is a group of people with common characteristics who are protected from discrimination.
“When bullying goes from making work life harder to discriminating against a protected class, it becomes harassment,” Dickerson said. In these cases, EDI takes over.
Hawkins said that preventing workplace bullying really comes down to treating people with dignity and respect. Dickerson added, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Finally, Lisa Nitsch, director of clinical services and education at House of Ruth Maryland, detailed signs of intimate partner violence in the workplace.
“Intimate partner violence is pervasive and frequently impacts the workplace,” she said. “This is happening whether you talk about it or not.”
Jessica Hawkins, NIH Civil coordinator, described the disruptive effects of workplace bullying.
Many victims of intimate partner violence look like bad employees, she said. They regularly take time off, are unfocused and lack confidence.
“One-quarter to one-half of domestic violence victims report that they have lost a job as a result of intimate partner violence,” she said.
One of the biggest reasons domestic violence victims stay with their partners is economic dependence, Nitsch noted.
It’s important for employers to develop reasonable plans to protect employees. This may include changing phone numbers, moving offices or providing escorts.
Nitsch advised employers that addressing domestic violence is a multi-pronged effort that includes developing policies and procedures and delivering training to raise
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to work ourselves out of a job,” she said.