Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Getting help from counselling and therapy for domestic violence and abuse

Research shows that women who are in or have left an abusive relationship experience a higher than average level of anxiety, depression, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many women can find it difficult to deal with the emotional and psychological impacts of abuse and the ways in which it can continue to affect their lives and relationships with others over time. Some women report finding it very hard to talk to doctors about problems at home (See ‘Getting help from doctors and other health professionals for domestic violence and abuse’). They also report feeling guilty about accessing support services after they have left a relationship because they feel such services should be available for those in crisis. We also know that many women who leave an abusive relationship suffer financial hardship which makes it difficult to access private counselling or therapeutic services. Research suggests that psychological help for women who have experienced abuse can help to improve their well-being. In some cases, they may be referred by their doctor for a course of general counselling or, if abuse has been recognised, to a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency. For some women, like Anna, receiving counselling was crucial in their recovery from the trauma of abuse. Anna said:

‘The physical side can heal but the mind controls everything and I need to heal the mind’

Most women felt the same, and some commented that this kind of healing may take a long time. Anna’s husband used to put pillows over her face and tell her she would die. She received counselling via the police and also from her local Domestic Violence and Abuse agency.
Most women started receiving counselling only after they had left their abusive partner, as part of the process of recovery. Their accounts showed how important it was to get the timing right for counselling, since it’s a bit like ‘opening Pandora’s box’.
Women’s anxieties about getting psychological help

Women we interviewed had mixed feelings about psychological help. Some women felt anxious about having any psychological support or treatment because their abusive partner might use this against them, as evidence that they were ‘mad’ or an unfit parent (see ‘Coercive Controlling Behaviour’). Women were also fearful of any kind of mental health assessment in case it went on their medical notes and resulted in them losing their children. When Tanya’s partner attacked her daughter she had to put these fears aside and she went to see her doctor. She had a mental health assessment and, while waiting for the outcome she was terrified of her kids being taken from her and her husband finding out she had talked to someone.
General psychological counselling 

Many women were referred by their GPs for general counselling for depression, anxiety and sleeping difficulties. The majority of women said that six weeks of general counselling was too short, and not always helpful without a specific focus on domestic violence and abuse. However, even though their counsellors were not specialists in domestic violence and abuse, both Mandy and Charlotte had breakthrough moments.
Specialist counselling: domestic violence and abuse, trauma and relationships

Women like Khalida, Jessica and Jane had specialist counselling from a domestic violence and abuse agency. They found it really good, as the counsellors had an understanding of the impact of abuse such as trauma, flashbacks and nightmares. Jane said it ‘helped tremendously’ and Jessica compared the specialist abuse counselling favourably with the general counselling she had received.
Some women were offered group therapy by Women’s Aid. Ella could not attend as she suffered from bad panic attacks, and instead she received therapy at home. Philippa found group sessions while she was in a refuge were sufficient for her to ‘get over’ the abuse and ‘move on’. 

Several women wanted to work at improving their relationship with their partner, and they went to RELATE (formerly known as ‘Marriage Guidance’).
Shaina was also referred for by the local domestic violence and abuse agency for family therapy with her children over two to three years, after the abusive relationship had ended, which she valued.
Several women were diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This diagnosis helped Sophie to eventually access EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy), which is recommended for trauma, free of charge via her local Depression and Anxiety Service. She said how hard it was initially to access services unless you have ‘significant mental health issues’. She also commented on the difficulty in accessing services when, like her, you live in a rural area. Sue said her ‘best help’, was from her mental health team, which included EMDR. Her experiences of counselling from two women’s agencies was mixed.
Both Melanie and Julia received a range of therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help let go of bad memories of abuse. They learned self-help techniques to manage flashbacks and nightmares.
* The Duluth model which includes the Power and Control Wheel is an approach to challenging abuse which underpins many other services.

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