two people sitting together, one has their head on the other's shoulder.

Breaking the wheel on intimate partner violence

25 March 2024
Researcher Spotlight: Dr Siobhan O’Dean
In this edition of Researcher Spotlight, we sit down with Dr Siobhan O’Dean, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Matilda Centre, to discuss intimate partner violence, its effects on mental health, and how she got to researching this important area of our lives.

Please note: this article contains discussions about mental health and intimate partner violence. We recognise this content may be distressing for some people. If so, help is available from specialist services such as 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).  

Most Australians have seen the ongoing news and activism on domestic violence. With 17% of women over 15 years old and 6.1% of men experiencing some form of intimate partner violence in Australia, every Australian likely knows someone who has experienced domestic violence or has experienced it themselves. 

Siobhan is leaning against a tree and is wearing a dark green cardigan. She has dark, thick glasses and has shoulder length red hair. She is smiling

Dr Siobhan O'Dean

At the Matilda Centre, Dr Siobhan O’Dean is leading the charge in this space. Having done research into novel strategies to reduce aggression in interpersonal relationships, Dr O’Dean is expanding her work into understanding the risk factors of intimate partner violence, and using this knowledge to inform prevention strategies.  

We caught up with Dr O’Dean to learn more about her journey to the Matilda Centre, how intimate partner violence and mental health interact, and what we can do to help reduce the harms associated with violence in relationships. 

Tell us about your journey to the Matilda Centre.

I grew up in Sydney and began studying a Bachelor of Arts degree at UNSW, majoring in International Relations and Political Economy. During this degree I completed some law and gender studies units that sparked my interest in gendered violence and sexual violence and its use in wars and civil unrest. 

After a while I started to wonder how I could affect any change with the degree I was pursuing. After much deliberation, I switched to a Psychology degree with the goal of being a clinical psychologist and working with victim-survivors... But then, through the course of the degree, I fell in love with the process of research and statistics, and realised I probably wasn't particularly well-suited to a clinician role. 

I continued to have a keen interest in aggression, violence and alcohol use, and completed my honours year studying whether mindfulness training could reduce anger and aggression within couples in romantic relationships. I continued with a PhD on the topic, but I always held a distinct interest in the role of drugs and alcohol in intimate partner violence (both as a risk factor, and as a potential consequence of victimisation). Towards the end of my PhD, I became increasingly interested in substance use research and its intersection with aggression and violence - so I jumped at the opportunity when I was offered a role as a Postdoctoral Researcher at The Matilda Centre. 

With the Matilda Centre, I have been able to work across multiple projects exploring young adult alcohol use disorder and evaluating some of the evidence-based substance use prevention programs, all while being supported to pursue my own research stream looking into the risk and protective factors for intimate partner violence (IPV) to hopefully create an evidence-based IPV prevention program for schools. 

How does intimate partner violence impact mental health?

Research consistently shows that victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) experience poorer mental health than their non-victimised counterparts. In the short-term, victims of IPV can may experience immediate psychological responses such as distress, fear and depression.  

In the longer-term, victims can develop chronic depression, anxiety disorders, complex PTSD, and chronic health problems related to stress. Alarmingly, research also suggests that women victims of IPV are significantly more likely to suffer from mental ill health resulting from IPV. 

IPV is most common in 18–34-year-olds and contributes to the disease burden for Australian women aged 15-44 more than any other risk factor. Recent research with Australian adolescents showed 29% of 18–19-year-olds have reported experiencing at least one type of intimate partner violence.  

These findings are particularly alarming, as we know that adolescents who are victims of IPV are significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety symptoms, think about suicide, and use drugs and alcohol. This makes adolescence a key time to implement prevention strategies to curb the multitude of negative mental health consequences associated with IPV.

a far shot of Siobhan O'Dean presenting. she is standing behind a lectern with a large screen next to her with a presentation screen.

Image: Dr O'Dean presenting at APSAD 2023 Conference in Adelaide, South Australia.

The Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called for more action from men on preventing intimate partner violence at his speech for International Women’s Day. What can men do to help reduce intimate partner violence?

In light of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's emphasis on the critical role men play in combating intimate partner violence (IPV), it is vital to approach this issue with a blend of personal responsibility and evidence-based strategies. There are multiple ways men can contribute to the reduction of IPV, grounded in research and practical action. 

Education plays a key role in preventing IPV. Men becoming informed about the dynamics of IPV, its signs, and the importance of healthy relationships can significantly contribute to prevention efforts. This involves understanding the psychological, physical, and societal impacts of IPV and recognising the importance of consent and respectful communication in all relationships. 

Culturally ingrained norms and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity often contribute to IPV. Men can play a crucial role in challenging these harmful norms by promoting and modelling gender equality and respect.   

What would you like to see as an outcome of ongoing research into intimate partner violence?

Personally, I would love to see us gain deeper insight into the root causes, risk factors, and dynamics of IPV across diverse communities and relationships. This includes understanding the interplay of societal, psychological, and individual factors contributing to IPV and using epidemiological evidence along with co-design to inform the development and validation of prevention programs tailored to different age groups, cultures, and settings.

Education initiatives that start early and address attitudes toward gender, relationships, and violence are key outcomes.

Ultimately, ongoing research into intimate partner violence should aim not only to deepen our understanding of the issue but also to translate findings into evidenced-based effective strategies to prevent IPV for future generations.

Interested in learning more about Dr O’Dean’s work? Follow the Matilda Centre on LinkedIn to be the first in the know.