Volunteering at a Detroit shelter for abused women was the catalyst for Dr. Janice Humphrey's three decades of research that has helped change stereotypes about abused women and improve how health care systems and social services can support this vulnerable population.
In the early 1980s, scholarly literature often described domestic abuse victims as passive, masochistic and even deserving of the abuse they experienced. If the women were mothers, they were said to have pathological relationships with their children.
But Humphreys, the new associate dean for academic affairs in the Duke School of Nursing, did some of the first research documenting that adult daughters of battered women could, contrary to popular belief, overcome their childhood experiences of violence and grow up to achieve personal and professional success. The common factor for each of these women was having a supportive adult in their lives.
Not surprisingly to Humphreys, it was often the battered mother who was able to mediate the damaging effects of the violent home.
"From what I was seeing, these were women who loved their children but were living in extraordinary situations and doing the best they could," said Humphreys. "We learned that we needed to help the mothers to help their children."
Humphreys was also one of the first researchers to that victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) suffer from chronic physical illness long after the abuse ended. She says that women who've experienced IPV report chronic physical pain at rates that are comparable to women with osteoarthritis or metastatic cancer.
Humphreys' recent research further points to the lasting damage that occurs at the cellular level. She and her team from the University of California, San Francisco, where she spent 19 years as a professor and researcher before coming to Duke School of Nursing in June, revealed that IPV often leads to illness and premature aging in victims and may even shortens their lives by years.
"For a very long time, no one has been able to identify why someone would have these problems years after the trauma occurred," Humphreys said. "With this this new information, health care providers can start screening for past abuse to help treat the physical pain."
Building on the work of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and psychologist Elissa Epel, Humphreys and her team have found that women with prolonged exposure to IPV have shortened telomeres. Like the plastic tip at the end of a shoelace that keeps the lace from unraveling, telomeres promote chromosome stability.
In response to aging and other stressors, telomeres lose a bit of their DNA every time a cell divides. However, there is critical minimum telomere length; when the telomere becomes too short, the DNA unravels and triggers cell senescence. When enough cells die, the integrity and normal function of tissues is affected, leading to age-related diseases including chronic inflammation.
Not only has Humphreys' work added compelling evidence of how psychological stress negatively affects physical health, it also is guiding researchers in the development of treatments and interventions to help women with their long-term health issues.
"There is an opportunity to go even deeper by identifying certain experiences that lead to more damage or identify coping mechanisms to prevent further damage. It is exciting as a researcher to move science forward but ultimately my work as a nurse is dedicated to women and their children and reducing their suffering."
Humphreys says she and her family have never met an art museum that they didn’t like. Season ticket holders for the San Francisco Ballet for many years, Humphreys said the family is finding places in the Triangle to fill that personal niche. Her husband will perform in a non-dancing role in the Carolina Ballet's upcoming production of Nutcracker, and they have grabbed season tickets for the Broadway series at DPAC.
Their daughter, age 21, is an art history major at Barnard College, who performs with a student dance cooperative. "During the summer she works at Wavy Gravy's Camp Winnarainbow, a sleep-away circus arts camp in Northern California," Humphrey said.