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Misconceptions surrounding domestic abuse often create a skewed picture of what it can truly look like. We tend to use the term ‘domestic abuse’ instead ‘domestic violence’ for this exact reason; domestic violence conjures up an image of slaps and kicks, of hidden bruises and black eyes. While abuse can and does look like this, it’s just one element of a wide and complex picture. In the public consciousness, ‘abuse’ is categorised as mainly physical, leaving everything else hidden. Today, on Time to Talk Day, we wanted to shed some light on an under-explored topic; the mental health impact of domestic abuse.

“My ex made me believe there is something wrong with me, that I am paranoid and that I was abusive to him. I felt confused, emotional, scared, had frequent panic attacks, and my body and mind were in a constant state of panic.” - a survivor

Survivor Mental Health

It is impossible to gain true insight into the impact of domestic abuse without discussing mental health. Both issues have what is called a ‘bi-directional relationship’; those who experience domestic abuse are more likely to develop mental health problems, and those with mental health problems are often more vulnerable to perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse survivors are three times more likely to develop a serious mental illness, and twice as likely to have already experienced some form of mental illness. An even more staggering statistic estimates 1 in 8 of all female suicide and suicide attempts are due to domestic abuse, with almost 30 women attempting suicide every day as a direct result of domestic abuse.

“It’s a horrific but relatively known fact that on average, two women are killed by a partner or former partner every week in England and Wales. What remains far more hidden, however, is the stark number of women who take their own life as a direct result of experiencing domestic abuse”

The mental health impacts of domestic abuse fall even heavier on survivors and victims belonging to marginalized groups. Both LGBT+ and disabled domestic abuse victims are around twice as likely to have attempted suicide and are at further risk of self harm. Similarly, victims of HBV (honour-based violence) are particularly vulnerable to self-harm and suicide - and just under a quarter were not eligible for most benefits like housing, further adding instability and stress.

The Current Situation

Despite the relationship between domestic abuse and mental health problems, a SafeLives report found that mental health services are not equipped to respond properly to domestic abuse; SafeLives estimated that only 10-30% of mental health cases linked to domestic abuse are actually identified as being related to domestic abuse. A UK study found that only 15% of professionals routinely asked all service users about domestic violence, and just 27% provided information to service users following a disclosure of domestic abuse.

As well as affecting the likelihood of being recognised as a domestic abuse victim, having mental health problems can create barriers in reaching out for support. Many survivors fear they will be treated badly or disbelieved by professionals if they disclose their mental health diagnosis, adding more obstacles to an already incredibly difficult path towards reaching out for help.

“I felt so confused and disorientated and did not know who to trust any more. He used other people and turned them against me; I had no one I could turn to, my thoughts were over consuming me, I could not switch off, I felt exhausted” - a survivor

This is even more so for victims who belong to marginalised groups. Victims of Honour Based Violence (HBV) experience abuse for an average of 2 years longer than non-HBV victims before they access support. A report by Womens Aid found particularly barriers for BME women accessing support due to the ‘one size fits all’ approach and the structural racism found in support services - similar issues were also found for LGBT+ and disabled survivors.

A better future

Those on the front line of our domestic abuse service and other services know that there is no easy fix to ensuring survivors feel supported. It’s a program of dedicated work - and not just what you’d expect. Each step helps rebuild and restore the confidence and self-esteem of survivors who have sustained psychological and physical abuse. Activities can range from front line staff organising the communal cooking of meals within refuge to arranging counselling sessions for each individual survivor. Hairdressers visit the refuge once a month and support workers give in depth housing and benefit advice. Treasure hunts are organised for the children and a listening ear is provided to their parents. Just as mental health conditions are highly complex and personal, so must be the healing.

“Support and counselling have taught me what the healthy boundaries are. I am more in control, relaxed and have made friends and built a stronger bond with my family” - a survivor

When discussing mental health and the importance of speaking out, it is vital that we bring domestic abuse into the conversation. This blog has only scratched the surface when it comes to the ramifications of domestic abuse on survivors and their mental health. As a society, we need to start doing better by survivors of domestic abuse; ensuring they feel supported and listened to, that they are helped when they make a disclosure, and that they don’t feel they are in this alone. This means improving training for professionals, opening up the discourse surrounding domestic abuse, and properly funding the services dedicated to looking after survivor’s emotional and physical health.

Without mental health support for survivors of domestic abuse.. Well, that just isn’t an option.