We must address the profound mental health impacts of domestic abuse

As Domestic Abuse Commissioner, survivors often tell me about the profound impact that domestic abuse has had on their mental health.

At the sharpest end, as many as 93 people die by domestic abuse related suicide each year. This is only the tip of the iceberg, given that so much domestic abuse goes unreported.

So, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week this week, I am joining calls for greater investment in mental health support so that survivors can get the help they need to recover from domestic abuse.

I know how important mental health support is for survivors’ recovery. When I asked over 4,000 survivors what interventions they wanted, the number one answer was counselling and therapeutic support. 83% said they wanted this type of support, but only 45% of survivors were actually able to get it.

Whilst this shortage of support is disappointing, it is sadly not surprising. Despite the lifesaving and lifechanging support they provide, community-based domestic abuse services are on their knees, piecing funding together just to keep their doors open. This leaves countless survivors grappling with the trauma of domestic abuse without access to the specialist support they need.

Community-based domestic abuse services refer to those that aren’t accommodation based (such as refuge). From counselling and therapeutic support that is tailored to the mental health impacts of domestic abuse – to life saving domestic abuse advocates that help keep victims safe, these services are essential in preventing and responding to domestic abuse.

Whilst the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 made great strides forward by placing a duty on local authorities to plan and provide accommodation-based support for survivors of domestic abuse and their children, there is no such duty for these vital community-based services.

Studies have shown that low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disorders and self-harm are some of the mental health impacts of domestic abuse.

In a Literature Review commissioned by Women’s Aid, one survivor described her experience of domestic abuse as “being bullied to death” and that she “had mental health issues as regards to being depressed because of the situation … oppression … I call it oppression, not depression”. Another survivor told of low self-esteem, saying “I just thought I was too weak. You get worn down by it over the years; you think you are useless, you think you are worthless, you think you are hopeless.”

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Respect’s Men’s Advice Line saw an increase in male survivors discussing suicidal ideation, extreme anxiety, stress and hopelessness. One survivor said, ‘I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live.’ Another caller had tried to kill himself ‘hundreds of times’, telling the helpline: ‘In the next few days maybe I kill myself … I want to find a very quick solution’.

Research has also shown that perpetrators of domestic abuse often weaponize survivors’ mental ill health as part of their coercive and controlling behaviour, and as a way of discrediting survivors’ experiences.

And with our understanding of domestic abuse related suicides rapidly evolving, a clearer picture is emerging that we simply cannot ignore.

Amidst these challenges, the Victims and Prisoners Bill – which is rapidly on its way to becoming a law – presents a crucial opportunity to address the gaps in mental healthcare for survivors, as well as wider specialist domestic abuse support.

Throughout the passage of this Bill I have been calling on government to use it to secure critical investment in community-based services. Whilst also providing counselling, therapeutic and advocacy support to survivors before they reach crisis point, community-based services also offer significant value for money and prevent the high costs of accommodation-based services.

Unfortunately, in its current form the Bill falls flat, and I am disappointed that government hasn’t seized this monumental opportunity to enact significant and long-lasting change.

This means that survivors will continue to struggle to access support to help them recover from domestic abuse and rebuild their lives. I urge government to reconsider before the Victims and Prisoner Bill becomes law.

As we advocate for increased funding for mental health support during Mental Health Awareness Week, we must not overlook survivors who grapple with the invisible aftermath of domestic abuse. Their voices must be heard, and their needs must be prioritized.

The time for action is now. Government must recognise the profound mental health impacts of domestic abuse as the crisis that it is and invest in meaningful prevention.