PhD student Sarah Eaton-Rivera first cultivated an interest in intimate partner violence (IPV) research as an undergraduate nursing student when she studied how college students support their peers experiencing IPV. While previous studies have demonstrated that social support protects abused women from mental health problems like depression and PTSD, Eaton-Rivera’s dissertation study is the first to examine what specific social network characteristics of IPV-positive women may be associated with their mental health and well-being compared to never-abused women.
For her dissertation, “An ego-centric social network analysis of intimate partner violence,” Eaton-Rivera interviewed 54 women by phone, half of whom were IPV survivors. Participants were asked to name the people in their network (family members, friends, etc.), indicate whether members of their network were connected, qualify the nature and degree of support they received from each person (whether practical or emotional), and how close they felt to each. They were also each asked to assess their own overall health and mental health, including depressive and PTSD symptoms.
For each participant, Eaton-Rivera did an egocentric social network analysis, noting networks’ density, size, and support type, and then correlated it to its owner’s mental and physical health. For the IPV-positive group, she found that network size and density was associated with lower PTSD scores, and that network size alone was associated with lower depression scores. She also found that IPV-positive women more frequently named female friends and family as the ones offering the strongest emotional support.
“My main takeaways,” said Eaton, “are the significance of having a variety of supportive people in your network”—not just one or two close friends—“and the need to develop informal networks in a way that does not put the onus on survivors but, rather, encircles them in support.”