Background: We examined the relationships among experiences of interpersonal violence, mental health, and sexual identity in a national sample of young adult women in Australia.
Methods: We used existing data from the third (2003) wave of young adult women (aged 25-30) in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health (ALSWH). We conducted bivariate analyses and fit multiple and logistic regression models to test experiences of six types of interpersonal violence (physical abuse, severe physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, harassment, and being in a violent relationship), and the number of types of violence experienced, as predictors of mental health. We compared types and number of types of violence across sexual identity subgroups.
Results: Experiences of interpersonal violence varied significantly by sexual identity. Controlling for demographic characteristics, compared to exclusively heterosexual women, mainly heterosexual and bisexual women were significantly more likely to report physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Mainly heterosexual and lesbian women were more likely to report severe physical abuse. Mainly heterosexual women were more than three times as likely to have been in a violent relationship in the past three years, and all three sexual minority subgroups were two to three times as likely to have experienced harassment. Bisexual women reported significantly higher levels of depression than any of the other sexual identity groups and scored lower on mental health than did exclusively heterosexual women. In linear regression models, interpersonal violence strongly predicted poorer mental health for lesbian and bisexual women. Notably, mental health indicators were similar for exclusively heterosexual and sexual minority women who did not report interpersonal violence. Experiencing multiple types of interpersonal violence was the strongest predictor of stress, anxiety and depression.
Conclusions: Interpersonal violence is a key contributor to mental health disparities, especially among women who identify as mainly heterosexual or bisexual. More research is needed that examines within-group differences to determine which subgroups are at greatest risk for various types of interpersonal violence. Such information is critical to the development of effective prevention and intervention strategies.
Keywords: Australian longitudinal Women’s health study; Depression; Female sexual identity; Interpersonal violence; Stress.