Domestic abuse: Survivors condemn “re-traumatising” support system
There is a mental health crisis facing domestic abuse survivors, many of whom are being re-traumatised by the very services in place to support them. Chris Lomas speaks to survivors, MPs, and experts in the sector, about why change is needed, and fast.
“Have you tried using an alarm clock?”
Rachel (pseudonym) couldn’t hide her astonishment at the inappropriateness of the question posed to her.
A survivor of domestic abuse, she had waited nine long months for therapy.
Suffering from a debilitating sleeping disorder, Rachel had informed her counselling manager of the condition, and that she couldn’t come in for a morning appointment. But the manager still insisted.
The blanket dismissal of Rachel’s lifelong disability epitomised her experience of the system of support available to domestic abuse survivors: A myriad of access barriers, victim-blaming responses, and inappropriate interventions from poorly trained professionals.
“There’s nothing I can do to change my disability”, Rachel frustratedly points out during our phone call.
“It left me feeling absolutely horrific, like I’d been traumatised all over again.
“I knew I couldn’t burn this bridge because I desperately needed the support, while at the same time having to explain to a clinician why their comments were incredibly patronising, ableist and discriminatory.”
Rachel is one of the thousands of domestic abuse survivors across the UK who are in urgent need of help but are experiencing significant barriers in accessing mental health support.
This is the story of three survivors. Rachel, Jessica (pseudonym) and Shana. They come from different backgrounds, the situations they’ve experienced are not similar, but their stories shine a light on the mental health crisis facing domestic abuse victims, encountering a system completely un-equipped to deal with their trauma.
Rachel met her ex-husband while travelling solo in England. “The relationship progressed very quickly”, she notes. “It was like a dream… I met his friends and family and ended up staying in the UK a lot longer than I anticipated.”
Not long after settling in the UK as a married couple, Rachel’s ex-husband started to abuse her.
“It began with emotional and psychological abuse, which was initially very subtle.
“He became increasingly critical, putting me down in front of others, making attempts to isolate me from my family and friends.
“Over time he escalated to economic, physical, and sexual abuse… I was walking on eggshells all the time.”
When Rachel talks about the effect the abuse had on her mental health, she recognises the vulnerable state it left her in.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified, I didn’t feel like I could speak to anyone about it.
“I was hyper-vigilant in public spaces, very easily startled, incredibly anxious. I didn’t know who I could trust.”
Jessica, in her own words, suffered from a “chronic lack of self-esteem” when it came to her personal life. An arrival of a romantic interest was a welcome surprise for her.
“I was just so thrilled that somebody picked me”, she reveals in our hour-long zoom call.
Unbeknown to Jessica, she had entered what would become a four-year-long toxic relationship. Over time, Jessica became alienated from her friends and family, gave up her job and endured emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-partner.
“It’s subtle”, she acknowledges. “I mean, emotional abuse can be very subtle. It one of those sorts of things that you just don’t really notice.”
At her lowest ebb, Jessica became suicidal. “At the worst, I really didn’t want to go on”, she admits.
“I was becoming so suicidal and desperate because I just didn’t know what reality was anymore. It really does impact on your mental health.”
For the first 25 years of her life, domestic abuse was all Shana Begum had known. A victim of honour-based violence, going against family rules in a strict Muslim background resulted in Shana’s father attempting to murder her on two separate occasions.
Shana describes how domestic abuse has shaped her personality. “I didn’t have much confidence”, she disclosed.
“Self-esteem was non-existent. So, it was very, very easy to exploit me or use me and abuse me because most of my life you did as you’re told.
“You don’t question it”, she explains.
“You don’t think it’s wrong, even though you might feel a sense of injustice… if you don’t have the words for it then that’s your baseline, that’s your norm.”
The toll of a lifetime’s worth of abuse caused Shana to consider taking her own life on at least two occasions.
“I was sexually exploited and sold… how do you process that?
“The layer of trauma is just building up and you’re just running on autopilot. You’re trying to survive.”
Unfortunately, Rachel, Jessica and Shana’s stories are merely the tip of the iceberg. The scale of domestic abuse in England and Wales is staggering.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Between April 2020 to March 2021, there were 845,734 domestic-abuse related crimes recorded by the police. This accounts for just over 18% of all crimes recorded in that period – nearly 1 in 5 offences (find out more in our Polimapper breakdown).
If those numbers weren’t shocking enough, the ONS figures only cover crimes recorded. The government’s recently published domestic abuse plan noted there were around 2.3 million victims of domestic abuse in the last year alone.
Refuge estimates that almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.
Jess Phillips, Labour’s shadow Minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, is a hardened campaigner when it comes to issues around domestic abuse. When asked about the scale of the problem, she states that domestic violence is “not even a priority in the department that leads on it”, referencing the Home Office.
“Do you think it’s as much of a priority as general policing or immigration? Have you heard Priti Patel talk more about domestic abuse or migrant boats?”
Despite the epidemic of abuse taking place in Britain, the vulnerable state domestic abuse survivors find themselves in is intensified by the number of systems they must confront along the way. Housing, police, family courts, among other institutions, can be daunting experiences for mentally healthy individuals to cope with, let alone victims of serious trauma.
Nicole Jacobs is the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales. After working for over 20 years in the domestic abuse sector, she highlights a common theme survivors face when engaging with the system.
“People are not able to access the services that they need for themselves”, she testifies.
“Even if they’re accessing services, the advice they’re getting or the approach to them is not informed by an understanding about domestic abuse, which is critical because it can lead to consequences in terms of their own personal risk.
“When you don’t have that in place, you’re really just simply not getting what you need when you’re seeking those services”, she adds.
A key detail raised by professionals in the sector, and experts by experience, is that many services are unable or unprepared to handle the vulnerable state survivors find themselves in at the first point of contact.
Jessica recalls feeling “all over the place” as a result of the abuse she suffered.
“You’re incoherent, you can’t remember things”, she explains.
Jessica says it is crucial first responders are “cognizant of the fact that you are sick.
“If you walk into a system that’s not aware of just how vulnerable or mad or bad you look because of what’s happened to you, not because you’re mad or bad, that then it’s going to be almost impossible to support that person properly.”
Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities committee, agrees that mental health support needs to be available at the first point of contact. “When somebody has got to the point that they’re prepared to ask for help, it [support] needs to be there, right there”.
Accessing support is a chief issue for many survivors. For Rachel, a key barrier was issues surrounding her immigration status. Despite living and working in the UK, Rachel’s stay in the country was dependent upon a spousal visa.
As such, Rachel had no recourse to public funds (NRPF), a blanket condition for numerous visa categories which leaves immigrants unable to access support that citizens with settled status would be eligible to receive by default, including refuge, benefits, and housing support.
Rachel describes how her perpetrator “weaponised” her immigration status against her.
“He was repeatedly threatening to contact the Home Office to cancel my visa”, she reveals.
“He could proactively notify the Home Office at any point and say the relationship is no longer subsisting and they would immediately move to curtail my leave and/or deport me.”
Fortunately, Rachel worked in the sector, and had the “professional level knowledge” to navigate some of the issues around her immigration status.
“Meanwhile, most migrant survivors do not have easy access to this information, through no fault of their own, and are left increasingly vulnerable as a result”, she observes.
Domestic abuse is still seen as a taboo subject in many sections of society, and the lack of training for staff across different sectors is a crucial barrier survivors cite when going through different support systems. Poorly prepared and ill-informed service staff are guilty of causing victim blaming responses, unaware of the link between domestic abuse and mental health.
Isobelle Younane, policy lead at Women’s Aid, said when speaking to survivors, it is the “the key barrier that cuts across” cases.
“Regardless of your background, your level of ability, the poor understanding of the connection between domestic abuse and mental health is the real challenge that they face when they go and seek support for these issues”, she added.
Often the first port of call in domestic abuse cases, the police come in for considerable criticism when speaking to Rachel, Jessica and Shana.
“They’re not educated, they’re not trauma informed, they don’t they don’t know the signs of abuse”, Shana states.
“Your first interaction with whoever responds, if that isn’t positive, it will have a domino effect through how you interact with services throughout.”
Rachel has special cause to feel aggrieved with how the police have handled her case. A series of serious mistakes in the initial criminal investigation has turned bringing justice to Rachel’s perpetrator into a lengthy ordeal, spanning 3.5 years to date.
Rachel says she was appalled by the victim-blaming responses of the officers involved.
“At one point, they told me that I should just return to my home country instead of pursuing investigations”, she protested.
“They literally said: ‘why don’t you just go home?’”
Before officers were forced into opening a fresh investigation in her case, Rachel tried to make a formal complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Much to her frustration, she was told the complaint wouldn’t be looked at until the conclusion of the investigation or a criminal trial.
“Even though all of my complaints were very urgent and timely, and I needed remedies within the context of the existing investigation, they’ve refused to intervene until it’s finished, at which point the damage will be irreversible.”
Rachel’s condemnation of the police’s handling of her case indicates wider issues of entrenched misogyny in police forces across the UK. Newly released figures found that over 1,000 police officers and staff accused of domestic abuse kept their jobs – 80% are still serving in law enforcement.
According to Rachel, a “massive overhaul” of the police is needed to tackle domestic abuse. “There’s a culture of misogyny of racism of ableism, homophobia, embedded within policing. I think they need to gut it”.
The culture of misogyny underpinning the poor handling of many domestic abuse cases is a key cause of concern for Jess Phillips.
When asked why many women still aren’t believed in domestic abuse cases, she affirmed: “It’s much easier to believe that a woman has made something up than to see the real horror of what she might have faced”,
“We believe so much in culture about the hysterical nature of women’s behaviour, that women are naturally emotional, that they’re weak emotionally.
“When a woman comes forward and says that she’s got problems because of mental health, because of trauma… I’m afraid to say that sometimes women can just be considered to be drama queens.”
Jessica described herself as the “epitome of an unreliable witness” in a situation.
“You’re all over the place, I can’t remember huge chunks of what happened to me”, she admits.
In Jessica’s opinion, the opposite can be said of the abuser in the situation. “Perpetrators tend to look together… they are charming”.
Additionally, Jessica felt the stigma of being in an LGBTQ+ relationship deterred her from going to the police.
She said: “I didn’t want to go to the police because, A), I didn’t think I’d be believed, and B), I didn’t want to come out.”
Statistically, LGBTQ+ people are two times more likely to self-harm, and two times more likely statistically to commit suicide.
“I think that’s all about not feeling that they can access help”, she sighed.
There’s this added layer of not really wanting seek help because it’s going to mean having to disclose not only about what’s happening to you in your relationship, but about your sexuality or gender presentation.”
Caroline Nokes says domestic abuse is “still a massive taboo” in society, warning that survivors will be deterred from seeking help.
“People do not want to talk about it, they keep their shame internalised”, she added.
Jess Phillips has a straightforward explanation as to why so many survivors approach her about their cases.
“People tell me about their rape in the local Tesco at the checkout because I know I will believe them because I have made that clear and they know that I will listen to them, and I won’t be judgemental”.
Beyond dealing with the justice aspect of domestic abuse, survivors are struggling to gain access to high-quality therapy.
Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of domestic abuse charity SafeLives, admits there is a huge issue in overcoming “blocks” within the system of support for survivors.
She explains: “Even if somebody can find their way to that specialist domestic abuse help, which in itself obviously kind of takes a while… the access then to onward services is really, really challenging.”
Shana said when encountering mental health services, she didn’t find them “helpful at all”, suggesting they were “dealing with the symptom, not the cause”.
The provision of free and high-quality therapy can also be difficult to come by. “You have to be at total crisis point, at imminent risk of death threat for it to be available to you”, Jess Phillips notes, when asked about the availability of mental health services.
When it comes to accessing mental health services for children, the picture is far bleaker.
“You might as well go and sing in the streets” Phillips remarks, when asked about trying to access children’s mental health.
“If you could ask the single priority of any victim in the country, it would be nothing to do with police, it would be nothing to do with justice, it would be about how they wanted some mental health support for their children.”
Shana refers to the “huge lows” of being trapped for over four years in family courts, worried about the use of her mental health as a weapon against her.
“I was fortunate enough to not be officially diagnosed again later on in my life because I knew through the family courts that would be used against me.
“I don’t know a woman who’s been through the family courts where their mental health hasn’t had a good battering as a result of the process.”
Whether it’s the family courts, encounters with the police, immigration issues, therapy waiting lists, housing issues, the long list of services domestic abuse survivors encounter result in them taking on too heavy a burden to deal with their own trauma.
Rachel believes the system is broken.
“Engaging with a lot of these services is really traumatising and even more damaging than not engaging with them”.
Shana says the services in place to help with domestic abuse victims “don’t understand the timeframe” involved in facilitating recovery for survivors.
“When you go in with an expectation that the police are going to give you X, Y and Z, the social workers are going to give you X, Y, and Z, and it doesn’t meet your expectation, that is when trauma is created”.
Shana added: “This is how the system re-traumatises people”.
The public health crisis in trying to meet the mental health needs of domestic abuse couldn’t be clearer.
In January 2022, the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse released a report into the matter, highlighting that 60-70% of woman accessing mental health services have experienced domestic abuse.
There is potentially hope on the horizon for domestic abuse victims. The government’s women’s health strategy is due to be launched this spring, having already identified mental health and domestic abuse as two of its six key pillars.
Making the link between domestic abuse and mental health is seen in the sector as a key step in paving the way for future a future funding settlement. Women’s Aid is highlighting the issue through its ‘Deserve to Be Heard’ campaign.
Isobelle Younane explains: “We’re not seeing the links between the two issues and that’s really the focus of this campaign, a connection between domestic abuse and mental health and therefore the reforms that need to happen as a result of that.”
Nearly a year since the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was passed into law, Nicole Jacobs says the lack of public health-orientated legislation was an oversight. Consequently, Jacobs believes Britain is “nowhere near where we should be” when it comes to mainstream public services for domestic abuse victims.
“It was very focussed on the justice issues… we still are at a stage where we’re looking at good practice examples and we need to move to a much more integrated approach.”
The government has recently launched its domestic abuse plan, announcing £7.5 million over three years to accelerate a more joined up approach between health services for domestic abuse victims.
In her role as domestic abuse commissioner, Jacobs has been a vocal advocate for ‘by and for’ services for survivors.
“We need to have much more of a strategic way of funding and a predictable way of funding community-based services”, she explained.
All three survivors featured in this article stress the need for a more trauma informed approach to decision making. The upcoming victims bill is seen as a significant first step in the right direction, provided it is backed up with an appropriate level of funding.
According to Jess Phillips, domestic abuse needs to be seen as a “mainstream political priority in every single government department”.
Caroline Nokes has called for there to be a full-time cabinet post for women and equalities.
“I think they should be the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) lead across government because it’s not just the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.
You also need to bring in the Department of Health and Social Care, you need to bring in the Department for Levelling Up and the local government aspect. I would always say you have to include the Department for Education because we have to start tackling the cultural problems that are underlying male violence against women.
Seeing domestic abuse as an educational priority was highlighted as the essential fix by each survivor.
Jessica, who is part of a group called the SafeLives pioneers, believes telling her story is the gateway to breaking down the taboo nature of domestic abuse. “It’s all about prevention”, she says simply.
Shana believes the cultural shift required to tackle domestic abuse at its source would be seismic.
“Rap music really dehumanises women, pornography, it’s like, why the hell does that stuff exist?
“When you look, when you’re more observant of the world, you can see how we create perpetrators. We create these people to be like that.”
Suzanne Jacob agrees that engaging with perpetrators is an element of the strategy in dealing with domestic abuse that needs to be strengthened.
“We will never ever get to the end of this unless we find out why is it that people use these behaviours against the people they’re supposed to love and care about”, she emphasised.
“That’s the only way we’re going to end domestic abuse”.
Ultimately, there will be no silver bullet for domestic abuse survivors. Shana stresses the narrative of providing a “magic money tree” will do more harm than good in the long run.
“A one size fits all can’t be the way forward, it has to be person-specific, individual-specific”.
Change won’t come soon, nor will it be easy, but acknowledging the system’s many flaws is an essential first step – survivors cannot be left to bear the burden of society’s faults any longer.