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Domestic Violence Counseling Career

Learn about the Domestic Violence Counselor career

domestic violence counselor

Marital counseling, or simply couples counseling, doesn't work and should be avoided at all costs when domestic violence and abuse is suspected, according to a California domestic violence counselor with more than 20 years working in the field.

"The perpetrator is only there [in counseling] to get more ammunition and fuel against the victim," said Kathie Mathis, Psy.D, and CEO of Mathis and Associates. "Because they're master manipulators, they manipulate therapists left and right."

Marital counseling comes after both the victim and the perpetrator have gone through programs, counseling, and recovery. In the state of California, that means a 52-week intervention program for perpetrators.

The complexity of abuse cases requires well-qualified and properly trained counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals. Specialized training in working in domestic violence counseling is the most important training for these professionals, and can be achieved through domestic violence counseling certification programs - each state having its own standards and requirements.

Domestic Violence Facts*

  • 25% of women have been affected by domestic violence affects in their lifetimes.
  • 74% of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.
  • 30% of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or boyfriend in the past year.
  • On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.
  • Most homicides occur between spouses, although boyfriends/girlfriends have committed about the same number of homicides in recent years.
  • About half of all female victims of domestic violence report an injury, and about 20% of them seek medical assistance.
  • Health care costs of domestic violence exceed $5.8 billion each year. Of that amount, nearly $4.1 billion are for direct medical and mental health care services, and nearly $1.8 billion are for the indirect costs of lost productivity or wages.
  • Approximately one in five female high school students reports being physically or sexually abused, or both, by a dating partner.
  • Surveys find that men and women assault one another and strike the first blow at approximately equal rates.
  • Men and women engage in overall comparable levels of abuse and control, such as diminishing the partner’s self-esteem, isolation and jealousy, using children and economic abuse; however, men engage in higher levels of sexual coercion and can more easily intimidate physically.
  • 503,485 American women are stalked annually by an intimate partner.

* Data reported on the Domestic Violence Resource Center website.

Mathis said that many patients come to her after seeing a counselor or therapist who does not have specialized training in domestic violence, and although these mental health professionals are well meaning, they actually do more harm than good. Traditional classes in psychology, counseling, or social work provide a great background for this career, but general classes don't go into the kind of detail that domestic violence requires.

Counselors not adequately trained or acquainted with domestic violence might view the situation - and the perpetrator - as a normal marital conflict. "But there's nothing normal about abuse," Mathis emphasized.

Perpetrators have abnormal thought processes that they learned when they were children, thought processes that focus mainly on power and control. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement, are self-centered, blamers, and justify all their bad behaviors. And they know how to "pretend" normalcy to everyone outside of their families.

Perpetrators gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner through physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological abuse, or through a number of other abusive behaviors, such as spiritual abuse and pet abuse. These actions or behaviors hurt an intimate partner, frightening, intimidating, terrorizing, manipulating, humiliating, blaming or injuring them.

Perpetrators are both men and women although far more women are victims than men. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, nearly one in four women in the United States reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life. On average, the organization states, three women a day are killed in the U.S. by an intimate partner.

A Study Links NFL Losses to Spike in Domestic Violence

Two researchers reported a correlation between American football and domestic violence.

An analysis of 900 regular-season National Football League games showed that calls to the police reporting men’s assaults on their wives or intimate partners rose 10% in areas where a team lost a game.

However, these were teams favored to win, according to the study reported in the
Quarterly Journal of Economics.

“Our results suggest that the overall rise in violence between the intimate partners we studied is driven entirely by losses in games that matter most to fans,” said David Card of the University of California, Berkeley and one of the co-authors. Gordon B. Dahl of the University of California, San Diego was the other author and researcher.

These games have a lot of emotionally laden interest, typically garnering 25 percent or more of a local television viewing audience. The disappointment of an unexpected loss, the researchers concluded, raises the risk that football fans might react inappropriately.

In contrast, the co-authors found no decrease in reports of violence following an unexpected win by the local team or by the team’s loss in a game that was expected to be close.

Experiencing a loss has long suspected of instigating violent behaviors. This type of research only points to the need for more studies investigating all types of loss on domestic violence.

Data on domestic violence against men is hard to accurately verify, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 2.9 million men experience intimate partner related physical assaults annually compared to 4.8 million women.

Mathis calls all abuse - psychological, sexual and physical - emotional abuse. "That's the core," she said. "It's where everything dumps."

She knows abuse intimately as well as professionally. As a battered woman with a child, she left her abusive husband , and returned to school to get her bachelor's, master's, and a doctorate degree in clinical psychology while juggling single motherhood and a full time job as a respiratory therapist.

"My experience with this type of relationship gave me the desire to help other people find their own happiness - and their recovery."

Mathis describes emotional abuse as "soul damage." Any type of abuse affects the woman's soul, and when she finally gets to a domestic violence counselor, she doesn't know if she has the strength to survive. The counselor must become the woman's strength until she finds her own.

Mathis said when using the word "woman" above, she also means men victims, as well as those in same-partner relationships.

Because the victim has learned helplessness, the counselor must have empowerment skills - or the ability to motivate the victim. Through group or individual sessions, the domestic violence professional takes victims step-by-step through the recovery process, which in addition to learned helplessness includes denial, negativity, and victimology.

By taking a process that seems overwhelming, the counselor breaks it down into manageable steps, and shows or teaches victims, through a cognitive-behavioral approach, how change is possible.

The perpetrator has taught the victim to concentrate solely on the negative, and the counselor turns that around to focus on strengths and positives, Mathis said.

She describes turning points in counseling as "light bulb" moments. These are the moments when, after a series of sessions where the counselor has taken the victim through a number of exercises explaining the mechanics of abuse, the victim connects the information to his or her own life.

"A lot of victims come to counseling because they want us to make the perpetrator better, but that's not our purpose. We're about helping them become healthier and happier - and looking at relationships in a healthier manner."

Mathis also teaches abuse victims about the insidious nature of emotional addiction, which she details in her 2009 book, "Emotional Addiction - A Bitter Sweet Truth" published by CreateSpace.

And for those interested in helping domestic violence victims, the good news is that domestic violence certification can be coupled with a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degrees. Psychology, social work, and counseling degrees make a good fit for this specialty, but a degree in criminal justice or any other field is also acceptable.

"You're changing people forever when you do this work, and there's nothing better than to be a part of that," Mathis said.

If you want to change lives, get started by requesting information from schools offering degrees in psychology - a degree that will start you on the path toward becoming a domestic violence counselor.

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