Pathologisation refers to the tendency to treat normal human reactions to distressing or traumatic events as medical or psychological disorders. For traumatised women, this often means their legitimate emotional responses are interpreted as signs of mental illness.
Common ways this occurs include:
Signs of trauma, such as fear, worry, hypervigilance, anger, or emotional numbness, are often misdiagnosed as personality disorders or mood disorders, such as anxiety or depression.
Women are more commonly diagnosed with personality disorders than men.
Many women will experience or witness sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape or domestic abuse at some point during their lifetime.

Those women who have been affected are frequently prescribed psychiatric medications (antidepressants, antipsychotics and other mood stabilisers without addressing the root cause of their distress. They may then become reliant on medication, which can overshadow the need for therapeutic interventions that address the root cause of trauma directly.

Labelling women as “mentally ill” can lead to social stigma, reinforcing feelings of shame and isolation. Women may internalise these feelings and blame themselves for feeling or behaving in a particular way, rather than viewing these as rational coping strategies.
This has historically deterred women from seeking help or disclosing their trauma experiences. Often remaining silent, wrestling with their trauma internally.
The Impact of Pathologisation
The pathologisation of traumatised women has profound implications for well-being and recovery.
  • Misdiagnosis and dependence on medication can prevent women from accessing trauma-informed care that could facilitate healing.
  • The failure to validate women’s trauma, feelings may worsen.
  • Institutional settings, like hospitals, can replicate power dynamics similar to those experienced in the initial trauma, causing further harm.
  • Stigma associated with mental illness can lead to discrimination in employment, relationships, and other areas of life.
  • Women may internalise negative stereotypes associated with domestic abuse and mental illness, impacting their self-esteem and hindering recovery.
Trauma Informed Approaches
It is crucial to adopt a trauma-informed approach that emphasises understanding, empathy, and appropriate support. Key elements for professionals working with women include.
  • Training in recognising trauma responses and understanding their impact.
  • Understanding oppression of all forms and how these intersect with issues affecting women.
  • Emphasis on the importance of listening to women’s experiences and validating their feelings.
  • Professionals reflecting on our own trauma, our own responses and coping mechanisms.
  • Not ‘othering’, we all have experiences of trauma. The support around us, being believed and self awareness, will affect how we respond and cope.
  • Support and intervention should address the whole person, considering physical, emotional, and social needs. And tailored to the individual’s unique experiences and strengths.
  • Women should be encouraged to take an active role, fostering a sense of control and agency in the support they receive.
What we do as a society?
  • Public awareness campaigns to educate about the effects of trauma and challenge the stigma associated with domestic abuse and trauma.
  • Creating supportive communities that provide safe spaces for women to share their stories without fear of judgment.
  • Storytelling to help women feel validated.
  • Having access to a range of options to express ourselves, art, drama, music, reading and writing can all be beneficial.
The pathologisation of women affected by domestic abuse, is a significant barrier to healing and moving forwards.
By shifting towards trauma-informed approaches that prioritise empathy, validation, and individualised support, we can create a more inclusive and effective support system.
We are unique and will respond differently to adverse experiences, this should be viewed as natural human emotion rather than a sign of inherent mental illness, and is crucial in fostering an environment where we can thrive.

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