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Supporting Survivors During COVID-19: Guidance for Mental Health Professionals

AVA have published guidance giving key information and practical support for mental health professionals to support responses to domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many people accessing mental health services have experienced domestic abuse and/or other forms of violence against women and girls. Research evidences, for example, that survivors of domestic abuse have a three-fold risk of depressive disorders, four-fold risk of anxiety, and seven-fold risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (1). Furthermore, the rate of physical and sexual violence is nearly four times more likely for mental health service users than the general population (2).

With many survivors in contact with Mental Health providers, these services have a crucial opportunity to identify abuse, ensure survivors are safe and that they have access to appropriate support – an opportunity that has been the focus of the Pathfinder project that AVA, alongside Pathfinder consortium partners, (3) have been working on over the last three years (4).

 The unique opportunity that mental health interactions provide for disclosure of abuse is something that we heard from many survivors in a recent series of survivor consultations, led by AVA as part of the Pathfinder project (5). One woman told us: 

“All I can say is that it took me 16 years to tell someone in a therapy session… I spoke the unspeakable about my sex abuse from my ex-husband she was gentle kind and made me feel safe and listened got me help and support… she educated me so I could get away from my abuse otherwise I would have been dead. I will never forget her, she saved my life and I was free at last.”

For women experiencing domestic abuse, the need to self-isolate, often with an abusive partner, is terrifying. Not only are they isolated with their abuser, they have less access than normal to friends, family and professionals who can help them. The abuser may themselves use the pandemic as an opportunity to exert even more control and do even more harm. 

Evidence of this increased risk to survivors is clear. Rates of domestic homicide in the UK have almost doubled since the COVID -19 ‘lock down and police and specialist services are receiving a surge in reports of domestic abuse’- Refuge, for example, have reported a 700% rise in visits to Domestic Abuse Helpline website. This makes the role of mental health practitioners more important than ever as a lifeline for these women. 

All this comes at a time when all health services are at breaking point coping with the impact of COVID-19 on staffing levels as well as patient referrals.

Our new resource provides context specific guidance to professionals working in Mental Health practitioners to support their work with, and responses to, survivors. This includes guidance on how to inquire about domestic abuse and respond to disclosures at a time when health support is increasingly being carried out remotely. The resource builds on AVA’s extensive programme of work on mental health and domestic abuse. With practical information and guidance to increase understanding of survivors’ experiences and guide safe enquiry and referral, this resource seeks to support mental health providers in these challenging times.  

You can access the guidance document at the following link: https://avaproject.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/FINAL-AVA-Briefing-for-MH-professionals-1.pdf

For more information about AVA see: https://avaproject.org.uk/ 

  1.  SafeLives (2019). Mental Health and Domestic Abuse. Spotlight. [online] SafeLives. Available at: http://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Spotlight%207%20-%20Mental%20health%20and%20domestic%20abuse.pdf [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].
  2.  Hughes, K., Bellis, M.A., Jones, L., Wood, S., Bates, G., Eckley, L., McCoy, E., Mikton, C., Shakespeare, T., Officer, A. (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against adults with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet, 379 (9826): 1621–1629.
  3.  AVA, Imkaan, Irisi, SafeLives and Standing Together Against Domestic Violence.
  4. The Pathfinder Toolkit will be launched later in 2020 – see avaproject.org.uk/.
  5. The Pathfinder survivor consultation final report will be launched later in 2020 – see avaproject.org.uk/.

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