Bloomberg Fellow Kate Vander Tuig wants people to know that calling relationships “healthy” or “unhealthy” isn’t just a manner of speaking. Some relationships truly have positive impacts on our physical and mental wellbeing, while others are hazardous to our health.
A senior program specialist at San Francisco-based nonprofit Futures Without Violence, Vander Tuig says she works at the intersection between primary health care and domestic violence prevention and intervention. As a fellow, she’s now getting an MPH degree at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heatlh to expand her ability to change the way we view, and promote, relationship health.
We talked to her about how she became an anti-violence advocate, how her approach to tackling relationship violence has evolved and the importance of supporting health professionals who’ve survived relationship violence.
What led you to your work advocating against violence?
In high school and college I got involved in a lot of peer health education. I got really invested in the aspects that centered on educating teens about dating and sexual violence and decided to continue that work after college. My first jobs post-grad were mostly doing crisis intervention for direct service agencies and domestic violence organizations that offer support to survivors.
I realized I wanted to be taking more of a systems-level approach, creating programs that were better equipped to give survivors the help they need and making sure structures were set up to promote healthy relationships.
When you finish the program at Hopkins, you’ll be Futures Without Violence’s only staff member with an MPH. How has your approach to tackling relationship violence changed since gaining more of a public health perspective?
For a while, the model was for health care providers to screen for signs of domestic violence. But that wasn’t working. What does work is just generally discussing healthy relationships with patients who come in. It’s reframing the approach to be: “Everyone is in relationships. They’re crucial to our lives and our health. How can we ensure the relationships you are in are making you happy and healthy?”
Well, we’re funded by the Department of Health and Human Services to be the national clearinghouse at the intersection of health and violence. We train health professionals on how to handle domestic violence in their patients’ lives. And you really also have to be thinking about whether the workplace for these health professionals is set up to support survivors and help them deal with the vicarious trauma they might go through when they talk about violence with patients. A lot of people who enter health careers do so because they have a personal history with trauma and violence and they want to help people through theirs. I’m excited because our training participants are now seeing our resources as a tool to help sustain themselves in this work.