Healthy relationships the focus of Penn State Abington presentation

Kristin Mitchell sent this text to her boyfriend: "You are being ridiculous... why can’t I do something with my friends?" Hours later, he murdered her. As shocking as this already is, a twist to this story elicited gasps from the Penn State Abington students in the audience: Kristin’s boyfriend had never been physically violent until the night he stabbed her to death in 2005.

With a framed picture of the smiling young woman perched nearby, Diane Kinney of Aldersgate Youth Services explained that Kristin didn’t know a classic red flag for dating violence is controlling behavior.

Last week, Kinney facilitated a program called "Healthy Relationships and Dating Violence," part of the wellness series offered free to Abington students. She warned them to be vigilant when it comes to recognizing escalating patterns of abuse. Just like 21-year-old Kristin, many young people aren’t aware of the less obvious warning signs of dating violence.

"Abuse happens when there is an imbalance of power in a relationship," she told the standing-room only crowd of about 85 in the Lares banquet room. "Even tickling can be abuse. And even men are victims."

She cited one survey which indicated that 32 percent of college students have been in abusive relationships. Issues such as sexual identity and cultural differences don’t affect the statistics on dating violence, Kinney said, but it sometimes makes it more difficult to identify and end the cycle of abuse.

Kinney was joined by Kristina Callahan, who stunned the audience with her story of how she segued from victim to abuser.

Callahan told students she was 16 when her relationship rapidly escalated from constant arguing to verbal and physical abuse. "Since I fought back and would beat him up, too, I didn’t think anything was wrong," she said.

After she finally ended the relationship, she physically and emotionally abused her next boyfriend. "I had to hurt him first," she said. "Today, I am still a work in progress but with a lot of therapy, I know how to maintain a healthy relationship."

Callahan reports that she is happily married, has earned her master’s degree in clinical and counseling psychology and is employed as a therapist.

Kinney and Callahan offered this advice to students who are concerned about their own safety or that of friends:

-- If the relationship seems too good to true, run!

-- Ask concrete questions of yourself and others: Do I want to be married to this person in 10 years? Is this what I am looking for in a relationship?

-- Listen without judging.

-- Remember that violence is not your fault.

-- Alcohol and drugs make you less safe.

As the students packed for their next class they loudly applauded Callahan’s last reminder: "If you think even for a second something isn’t healthy, it probably isn’t. Talk to someone about it."

Healthy Relationships and Dating Violence was organized by Donna Monk, director of health services at Abington. It was funded by the Kristin Mitchell Foundation, which educates college students about the dangers of dating violence.

For confidential information on a wide array of health and wellness programs at Abington, call 215-881-7350.