A safe, just and equal world for women

Understanding how domestic abuse affects mental health

Our mental health IDVA supports women who've experienced domestic abuse and have mental health needs. Here, she shares what her work involves and why it's so important.
A key part of being a mental health IDVA is understanding complex needs and how trauma affects the mental health of women experiencing domestic violence. We ensure that women are heard and their rights are understood.

Women who’ve experienced domestic abuse can face challenges and barriers in accessing the support they need because of their mental health. Their mental capacity can be questioned due to a sometimes-limited understanding by statutory and non-statutory services of how domestic abuse affects the mental health of women. This can be dangerous for the victims, both in terms of their ability to realise their rights and to get the support they need. It can also see the perpetrator getting away without any prosecution.

Keeping high-risk victims safe

A typical day for an IDVA involves contacting the women we support and reviewing their needs, following up with referrals to counselling or talking therapy services, and requesting updates on any potential escalation if the woman is living with the perpetrator. As an IDVA, I also attend child protection meetings with the victim to advocate on her behalf.

Part of the mental health IDVA’s role is to educate professionals about the impact of domestic abuse, from social services to the police and mental health practitioners. I also work with other agencies, such as solicitors, to share information and advocate on behalf of survivors, as well as attending meetings to provide feedback and explain court proceedings to women who struggle to understand because of their mental health or a language barrier.

Women with experience of manipulation and gaslighting can have additional needs due to the complexity of their mental health, which has been triggered or worsened by the abuse. Again, a lack of understanding by agencies working with victims of domestic abuse can make it difficult for the survivors. A solicitor who was working with one of the women I support on a divorce and finances recently raised concerns around her mental health, doubting and questioning her mental capacity. The solicitor said the woman couldn’t hold onto information. I explained how the impact of domestic abuse had affected her mental health, that she does have full capacity and can understand everything, but she might have a loss of memory, anxiety and a lot of stress, which means she isn’t always able to retain all the information shared with her.

Barriers to getting adequate support

Waiting lists are one of the biggest barriers to women getting effective support. Often you will complete a referral and wait a while, only for them to say there isn’t any space. Then I have to go back and look at alternatives. Even if the referral is accepted, the wait for the assessment is very long. It takes about six weeks to hear from the mental health therapy team, and that is just for the assessment.

It’s stressful for women, especially those who need immediate support. It’s very challenging to explain to someone who is dealing with social services, the courts, her children, the perpetrator and any other things in her life, that there is a long waiting list. She wants immediate support from a mental health professional – in addition to the emotional support and advocacy that I provide. Not having it puts her at further risk of abuse.

There are a lot of other gaps in support for women experiencing domestic abuse, mainly complex cases with mental health issues involved. I have supported women who had been and are still going through severe financial hardship because they made the decision to leave the perpetrator, which has further affected their mental health. This is particularly true of women with no recourse to public funds and pre-settlement status. For some, universal credit is not sufficient to live on, or the perpetrator will threaten that they won’t provide child maintenance or any financial support unless they come back to them. So the woman is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Raising awareness to protect victims

Amongst the shortfalls in the support experienced by victims of domestic abuse is the response of statutory agencies, such as the police and social services. A woman I supported said that social workers weren’t complying with the court order regarding a child arrangement order when the child was in the care of the local authority. I explained to the social worker that the woman was suffering from anxiety and depression because she had not had any contact with her daughter for three months despite the court order allowing her to see her child every four weeks. The social worker’s response was, “I’m working with her child and not the woman”. Women I’ve supported have contemplated suicide because of the abuse, and that was exacerbated when worrying about their children and dealing with social services.

The response of the police can also be quite distressing where there is a lack of awareness. The woman is already going through a lot, her mental health is impacted, and then she is given the wrong information by the police, or she does not feel protected, which adds to her emotional stress. Being a mental health IDVA is very challenging and stressful because of all the distressing stories we hear from the victims. It requires a lot of motivation, passion and dedication. But it is a vital role.

Women’s mental health must become better understood and more of a priority across not just mental health services, but all statutory and non-statutory agencies that work with survivors of domestic abuse.

How to get help

You can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free, 24/7, on 0808 2000 247.

More detailed information about domestic abuse and how to get help is available here.

If you feel you’re in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police.

A woman with a ponytail sitting on a sofa slightly hunched over, with her knees raised to her chest and her chin and arms resting on her knees.
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