Domestic violence and mental health
Friday, May 20, 2016
Domestic violence is a mental health issue. Women’s mental wellbeing is directly linked to the violence and trauma we face. The two cannot be separated. While our bodies and our brains are exposed to physical and mental cruelty, our bodies and our brains will react, even for long periods after the immediate experience of violence is over.
I can reel out the stats and facts for you. Rates of PTSD amongst survivors of domestic and sexual violence are around 64%: that’s almost double that of returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. Women who have experienced domestic violence have much higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders than men, and compared to those who have not experienced abuse have high rates of suicide ideation. Those that have experienced physical and sexual violence are more likely to ‘have an alcohol problem’ and are ‘eight times more likely to be drug dependent.’
Yet, these medical definitions of women’s responses to violence are not translating into the services we want and need. What’s happened under austerity? Did the new ‘back to work’ tests ever ask women if they were experiencing abuse?
Do health services routinely ask women about their experiences of violence?
Do housing services seek to offer women safe havens that recognize the trauma, violence and abuse that they’ve experienced?
Are the spaces in which we seek help modelled on recognizing our psychological needs?
In some kind of hellish dystopian nightmare women are forced to choose between the psychological trauma of domestic violence and the psychological trauma of state violence. Language like ‘complex needs,’ ‘vulnerable,’ ‘troubled’, ‘toxic’ and ‘problematic’ are bandied around survivors of abuse creating barriers to accessing support and shaming those that seek it. Women who have found the courage to seek help or have reached a point where services step in suddenly gain multiple individual labels, each with its own set of social judgments: substance abuser, multiple service user, mentally ill, risky individual. Women are ostracised by services that then call them ‘hard to reach’ and ‘difficult’.
This is a problem for women fleeing. Research in London has found that many women seeking safety are turned away from specialist services – chronically underfunded they feel unable to meet the needs of many women with diagnosed mental health conditions or who are using substances. In fact, if you are using substances and have support needs around this, there is a 4 in 5 chance that you won’t be able to access support. Because it barely exists.
Research undertaken by AVA in London 2013 found that many refuges felt ill-equipped to take women with particular diagnosed mental health issues or who used particular substances, particularly opiates. Furthermore, many local authorities had no requirement for services to do this. These women are being failed by the state.
The systematic underfunding of refuges and the lack of funds for specialist mental health support mean that the refuges that do exist are currently not spaces for all women.
Survivors’ bodies and minds are subjected to violence long after they have fled abusive partners. And by failing to recognize the social context of women’s experiences, services are failing us. So this mental health awareness week, I ask you to understand and think about women’s mental health in a wider social context. To ask what those stats actually mean. To ask women what we need for our wellbeing.
In Judith Herman’s brilliant book, Trauma and Recovery, which focuses on recovery from the trauma of domestic violence, she says that activism and investment in the thing that has traumatised women can help women through that trauma. Coming together, collectively, to stand against domestic violence, against state violence, offers an opportunity for validation,healing and support. Sisters Uncut offers a non-traditional space for survivors to heal together – by meeting together in safe spaces, by speaking out together with united voices, by discovering the power of owning our bodies and using them as political tools for disruption (via direct action).
Women’s mental health reflects our experiences. In response to this state failure, Sisters Uncut demand properly funded services shaped by us for us. By perpetrating violence against through personal, collective and state violence our wellbeing is eroded. Yet we survive, and by fighting for the changes we want to see, we learn that we are powerful.
Sisters Uncut is a mass movement, we organise direct action. We are not a domestic violence service provider, which sometimes people get confused by. But our movement does play an amazing role in recovery from domestic violence. When you’re suffering domestic violence, you feel overwhelmingly alone and fearful. Sisters Uncut has cultivated collective spaces where survivors can feel united and powerful. And that is a powerful political act in itself.