Domestic Violence During the Pandemic (1/5): Psychological Impact
Domestic abuse has surged during the coronavirus lockdown, with calls to one dedicated UK helpline doubling in recent weeks. Dr Jeannette Roddy is a counsellor, author and academic specialising in this area. In the first of a five-part weekly blog about working with victims of domestic violence during the Covid-19 crisis, she provides insight into the psychological control perpetrators exert – and the compassionate counterpoint therapists can offer.
In the recent lockdown due to the coronavirus, there has been media coverage of significant increases in reports of domestic violence and calls to helplines. Domestic abuse is not only physical violence, but sexual, financial, emotional and psychological abuse, such as restricting money, continual verbal abuse/putting down, false accusations or mind games. It can happen to anyone aged 16 or over. The numbers of those seeking support has increased as social isolation has continued, with few options for people to escape.
For many of us, our focus during the lockdown may have been to adapt to our new existence, keep the family occupied and happy and perhaps take our exercise. For a domestic violence survivor, the focus is to keep family members and themselves safe by ensuring that the perpetrator’s needs are met and that the perpetrator perceives that they are in control. Victims of domestic violence have been drilled by their partner in how to do this, and have become very skilled. While those strategies are working, it is easier to keep a low profile and keep doing what they need to do.
Isolation: a vicious circle
However, as time goes on and the perpetrator starts to feel frustrated by the world, the dangers for individuals increase. Can you imagine what it would be like to live 24 hours a day with someone who says you are worthless, stupid, a bad mother/father, clumsy and so on? While you may be able to tell yourself that it is not true initially, over time this becomes more difficult.
The focus on keeping safe inside the home may mean that links with friends and family have been broken, reducing the chance of hearing balancing external views. For many victims, the isolation reinforces messages from the perpetrator, such as: they are ‘lucky’ to have their partner, they are incapable of living on their own, or that no one else would want them.
Whilst there are specialist services available for people in fear of their lives through violence, these do not always offer psychological services for those in fear of their lives through suicidal ideation from psychological abuse.
The difficulty of asking for help
People in this situation find it hard to ask for help as this means an external rather than internal focus. If the perpetrator finds out that they have asked for help, this could exacerbate the situation, increasing the level of perpetrated abuse. The individual may have lost their sense of self or may feel that they are not important enough to deserve help. For this reason, if someone does take the risk of seeking help from outside their family home, it is vital that they get the right response and are encouraged. Whether they need help to become physically or emotionally safe, reaching out for help is a sign of the perceived hopelessness of their situation, an existential crisis.
As counsellors, psychotherapists or psychologists, we are not well qualified to do risk assessments in these situations. This is best signposted to social workers and domestic violence agencies through having local contact numbers and links available and ensuring clients know about the silent 999-55 telephone service.
What we can do effectively is build a positive relationship with them, listen to their story and show our understanding and compassion for their situation. We can help them to process and reflect on their experiences, providing a different view to that of the perpetrator, and hold hope for their future.
In subsequent blogs, we will address some of the skills, knowledge and personal characteristics that can help therapists work effectively with this complex client group.