You probably have noted that I am a big fan of awareness. I try to point out at least one noted awareness day or monthly awareness item, each month, especially if it is connected to mental health. This year, I bought an awareness calendar which lists daily awareness issues, some of which are quite frivolous, yet fun (like cook a sweet potato day on February 22nd). I try to have fun with some of the days in my real life, but I also want to point out some of the serious awareness days in an effort to help me keep in mind some things which are extremely important to remember.
February has several monthly awareness issues which can not be discounted. One of the most important for mental and physical health is that February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. According to the CDC, right around 15% of teen-aged girls and 11% of teen-aged boys experience teen dating violence in any given 12-month period. Since there around 43 million teenagers living in the United States, that means more than 11 million teenagers experienced dating violence in the United States in 2018, alone. We can guess that many of those teens do not talk about it for a long time, out of fear, so they are not getting the help that they need.
What constitutes dating violence? There are four types of violence that make up dating violence (for teens and adults, alike). Physical violence and sexual violence are probably what we most often associate with dating violence, because we hear about those types of violence the most. The other two are stalking (repeatedly being contacted or followed creating fear or danger) and psychological aggression (words or behaviors which create emotional or mental harm in another person). Dating violence of these types can be done in person or using devices (phone, computer or other electronics…).
The harm caused by even the mildest form of dating violence can last long into a person’s life, changing the way a person sees the world, sees themselves, and is able to function in life. Some people who perpetrate dating violence don’t even know they are causing harm, but many are fully aware they are hurting the person they are dating.
I recently heard a story from a former student about his experience of being followed and electronically tracked by a former girlfriend. He told me that she had to know where he was every second of every day, and if there was any time that he could not account for where he was and what he was doing, she would scream at him until he would break down and promise to be available to her at every moment. This young man said that he “finally broke up” with her, but the experience has made him not trust women and has made him unable, at least for now, to enter into other romantic relationships. I asked him if he understood that he was a victim of a form of dating violence, and he was surprised. When I said that if he was still a student, I would have had to report this to the university, he was even more surprised. Being a self-proclaimed “tech geek,” he did a Google search and found that I was right, and there are many resources on dating violence which he has started looking at. I can only hope that he will get some psychological help, if he feels like he needs it, but I am glad that he is becoming aware of dating violence so he can avoid it in the future.
So what can we do to help someone who may be experiencing dating violence? To start with, if it is a teenager, in most states all adults are mandatory reporters of suspected abuse or neglect of children, which means we can’t promise not to tell anyone. We can educate children about dating violence and what it can entail, as well as the potential damage it can cause if kept secret. Suggest that the teen keep a log or make journal entries each time something happens or they feel threatened. Such logs are often allowed in court as evidence, as long as they are kept, diligently and accurately. Listen to the teen without judgement, allowing him or her to feel like they are safe enough to talk about what they are experiencing, so they will continue, even if it is at a later time. Refer the teen to information and resources, and let them know that you are willing to help more, if they want you to. That little bit just touches the surface of what can be done to help, but start there.
If we want our society to thrive, it is essential that we listen to our youth and provide them with the help and resources they need. They will be the leaders of our future. They will be the parents of a new generation. These kids matter, so show them they matter and educate them as much as possible. Stop the violence so they don’t think this is the norm, and they will know they lewarn a better way.