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Domestic abuse services at risk this winter, charity warns

Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, has written to all council leaders in England, urging councils to provide vital support to specialist domestic abuse services this winter. 

07/11/22

Domestic abuse services at risk this winter, charity warns

The cost-of-living crisis is having an unprecedented impact on domestic abuse survivors and services across the country – and urgent action is required.  

Women’s Aid research shows 96% of women who have experienced abuse are struggling financially. Women who have been trapped in households with abusers now can’t pay for basic essentials, with over a quarter having to access foodbanks with their children.   

 After facing the COVID-19 pandemic, services across the country are now struggling with severe staffing pressures – inflation and low salaries mean women working in the sector are unable to make ends meet. One service manager said: “We’ve had to provide a wellbeing table with food for staff so at least they can eat two meals at work.”  

“Services are telling us that the rising cost of living is having an unprecedented impact on their ability to support women. Across England, our frontline domestic abuse services provide a lifeline to survivors – from refuges to community-based services. Without action now, many local services will risk going under, and many women will be forced to stay with their abuser, even when their lives are at risk,” Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said.

“Women’s Aid understands the significant pressures facing local authorities, but unprecedented times call for urgent action. We are asking local authorities to do everything in their power to protect women and children experiencing domestic abuse by supporting the services they depend on.” 

Domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are one of the main causes of women’s mental health issues, the charity said.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) launched an open consultation in April 2022, aiming to collect evidence and expertise from individuals and organisations to inform the government’s new 10-year mental health and wellbeing plan.

During the consultation, the government asked for evidence on promoting positive mental wellbeing, preventing mental health conditions, proposals for early intervention and improving the quality and effectiveness of mental health treatment.

The final report by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Agenda states: “about one in every 20 women in England (1.2 million women) has experienced an extensive pattern of physical and sexual violence and abuse across their life… [and] Of these, over half (54%) have a common mental disorder and a third have attempted suicide (36%.).”

However, despite costing the health system £2.3b per year, support for mental health and domestic abuse is not prioritised: “Domestic abuse is primarily treated as a criminal justice issue, but it must be seen through the lens of health and treated in a holistic way in order to provide long-term and meaningful support to survivors.”

Responding to the consultation, Women’s Aid used testimonies from member services who are showcasing mental health support.

“Rochdale Women’s Welfare Association, one of our specialist member services who provide counselling services for survivors have said that they use a model that centres domestic abuse, requiring the service to offer longer sessions to form trust between the survivors and the therapist so they feel able to confide in them. They argue that this is not possible in the six to eight sessions that is often offered by statutory services. One member told us that they offer survivors 22 counselling sessions so there is enough time to delve into the abuse without abruptly ending the support after 6 or 8 sessions, as is typical for counselling provided by the NHS. For this service, this model has been successful as it gives survivors the length of time, they need to start their journey of recovery.”

The Mental health and wellbeing plan discussion paper says that “meaningful change” must be driven by both society and government.

“We need to transform attitudes and awareness, and de-stigmatise mental health conditions – in our families, communities, places of worship, workplaces, and health and social care services.”

In a submission to the government, Women’s Aid recommended steps to reinforce better support for survivors of domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid has suggested that the Plan should “include a requirement for all public services that come into contact with domestic abuse survivors to work collaboratively with specialist domestic abuse services to ensure that survivors are receiving holistic support.”

They said: “The Plan should include a commitment to ensure sufficient investment in specialist domestic abuse services – both refuge and community-based support – so they are equipped to deliver mental health support to survivors as part of a holistic and long-term support journey.”

The submission also highlights how further research should be set in motion to understand the link between suicide and domestic abuse.

Other organisations including the NHS should also be properly resourced to provide longer term and trauma-informed counselling support, the charity said, arguing: “survivors want mental health support to be available to them when they need it, without having to face long waiting times. They also want it recognised that recovery often is not short-term.”

Other charities including the Mental Health Network have also welcomed the plan.

“The majority of the determinants of good mental health and wellbeing sit outside the NHS, so improving preventative, early intervention and specialist mental health services will take commitment from across government departments.”

“There has never been a better time to develop a cross-government plan. The pandemic has had a significant impact on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing and existing inequalities exacerbated. While we have seen renewed commitments from the government to driving parity of esteem, we are still a long way off achieving it.”

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