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What to do if you suspect a loved one is being abused

Woman comforting a friend who may be being abused

These steps can help you support a friend or family member in need.

If you suspect that someone you care about is being abused, it’s hard to know how to help. But even though it may be difficult, it’s important that you don’t stay silent.

Domestic abuse is aggression that occurs between couples.1 It’s also called intimate partner violence. Abuse can take many forms. It can be physical, sexual, verbal or emotional. And it’s a serious public health problem. It affects millions of Americans.

In fact, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.2

The abuse may happen once or many times. And it may involve a current or former partner. If there’s a gun present during the violent encounter, the risk of someone dying is four times higher.2

If you’re worried about a friend or loved one, make sure they know how to reach a domestic violence hotline. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE (7233), TTY 711. Keep reading to learn more ways you can help.

If you need help with your own mental care, we’re here for you. Click here to see how Optum can support you.

Know the top signs of domestic abuse

These are some of the red flags to watch for:3

  • The partner tries to control whom your loved one sees, where they go or what they do.
     
  • The partner discourages your loved one from seeing friends or family.
     
  • The suspected abuser looks or acts in alarming ways.
     
  • The partner prevents your loved one from making decisions, working or attending school.
     
  • The partner destroys property or threatens to hurt or kill your loved one, their children or their pets.

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How you can help someone who’s being abused

You may feel that there’s nothing you can do, but you can help. Here’s where to start.

1. Trust your instincts. “If you feel that someone is being harmed, the chance of your being correct is probably high,” says Ruth Glenn. She’s the president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “As humans, we can tell when something is not quite right.”

Glenn adds, “It’s not always about bruises and black eyes. It can be changes in the person being more fearful or guarded. You may be hanging out with the person, and the partner keeps calling to ask where they are.”

2. Raise the issue. “Tell the person, ‘I believe something is going on for you. You don’t need to share it with me if you don’t want to, but I’m here if you do want to talk,’” Glenn says. It’s all about letting your loved one know that you want to help.

3. Don’t urge the person to leave the abuser. “Our instinct when someone is being hurt is to tell them to leave. But it may be dangerous to do that,” says Glenn. “The odds of a situation becoming lethal go up if the person attempts to leave.”

You may very much want to offer your help and an escape route. But let your loved one decide when to get out of the situation. “Survivors often know what’s likely to happen if they leave,” Glenn says. “So we advise that you provide an outlet when and if they are ready to talk about it. And when the person reaches out, let them determine when it’s best to leave.”

4. Offer support. You can offer to help them make that call to the domestic violence hotline. If the person is thinking about leaving the abuser, suggest they take important papers. For example, their passport and car registration. “These can be hard to get later,” Glenn says.

Here’s another suggestion. Have your loved one put together an emergency bag. It can include money, a checkbook, car keys, medicines, insurance cards and birth certificate. Have your loved one keep the bag somewhere safe and easy to get to. It can be with a trusted friend or at work.4

And let the person know that the abuse isn’t their fault. Listen and empower them to make choices for their safety.5

Hotlines for reporting domestic violence

Here’s where to get help:

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Survivors of abuse or concerned friends or family members can call, chat or text. 
     
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673). This is operated by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). It’s the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It has more than 1,000 local service providers.
     
  • The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline (1-866-331-9474). This 24/7 helpline is run by loveisrespect.org. Peer advocates are on hand to support teens and young adults.

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Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Injury prevention and control. Last reviewed October 20, 2021. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  2. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  3. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Know the red flags of abuse. Accessed July 20, 2022.
  4. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Finding safety and support. Accessed July 25, 2022.
  5. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Helping to end domestic violence. Accessed July 21, 2022.