Vera Villanueva

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health are designing a mobile app intended to help mothers and daughters stop the cycle of domestic violence.

Tiara Willie SPH ’20, a doctoral student at the School of Public Health, and her doctoral adviser Trace Kershaw are working on the app, which aims to facilitate an informed conversation about gender roles and intimate partner violence between mothers and daughters. The app, which takes the form of an interactive graphic novella, features a variety of scenarios designed to help users learn about the ways gender affects life at home, at school and in the workplace, Willie said.

Victims of domestic abuse face long-term negative consequences to their health and well-being, and the children who witness domestic abuse often suffer immensely as well, she added.

“We know that both those who suffer intimate partner violence and their children are more vulnerable to this pattern of violence in the future, as well as to high-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse,” said Carolyn Mazure, the director of Women’s Health Research at Yale. “Dr. Kershaw’s project focuses on breaking this intergenerational cycle of domestic violence and does so using a creative, new method that is easy to access.”

The target audience of the app are women who have been the victims of domestic violence and daughters who were either present for or aware of the abuse, Willie said. By targeting mothers and daughters together, it’s possible to better the well-being of both while also improving the mental health of the family overall, said Kershaw.

“Why can’t moms and daughters come together to talk about violence?” Willie said. “We should be encouraging parents and children to talk about what violence looks like and how to prevent it.”

Sections of the app address violence directly in a framework that is informative yet appropriate for its adolescent user base, ages 13 to 17. As users make decisions in the app, they progress through the story and are shown positive and negative consequences based on their choices, which mirror ones they might face in real life, Willie said.

Willie first became interested in studying intimate partner violence in a class on interventions taught by Kershaw. In the class, she studied different interventions used to reduce the risk of intimate partner violence and improve the health of those who had already suffered it.

Some of the interventions focused on reducing the risk of violence suffered by young girls were aimed at parents, while others were directed at the adolescents themselves. However, very few involved both groups working together, Willie said. This was surprising to her, as interventions that address other social issues, such as obesity or sexual health, often involve both parents and children in their programming.

After the class concluded, Willie was uncertain of what to do with the research she had compiled, until Kershaw mentioned a resource that could help fund a practical application of her research: the Women’s Health Research at Yale program.

WHRY aims to foster the inclusion of the issues that affect women in medical research and practice, said Rick Harrison, the communications officer for WHRY. In order to do this, WHRY funds research into issues that affect men and women differently. In the United States, women are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence, Willie said.

The project is still in the app-development phase, though researchers have already made plans to test its effectiveness on a group of 15 mother-daughter pairs as soon as the app is user-ready, Willie said. If the response to that trial run is positive, she plans to work on marketing the app to a much larger audience.

“But that’s more like the seven-year plan,” she added with a laugh.

One in four women will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maya Chandra | maya.chandra@yale.edu