By Dr Alison Gregory
“How important are informal supporters of women experiencing domestic violence?”: “Very” – a simple answer to a complicated question. The bottom line, in terms of statistics, is that if survivors disclose their situation to anyone, it will most likely be to informal supporters (friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues) rather than professionals.1 And this is true across the world, with research indicating that sometimes a disclosure to an informal supporter happens alongside a disclosure to a professional, but frequently this is not the case.2-5 In addition, it is not unusual for informal supporters to witness abusive behaviours, but commonly they are uncertain about what exactly it is that they are seeing, in particular, what it means, and what their role in the situation should be.6 ,7
Survivors have been asked about the responses of the people around them, and have described a complete spectrum, from responses which probably saved their lives and have helped them in their recovery following an abusive relationship, through to responses which were actively abusive, in and of themselves.8-10 Though a rather mixed bag in terms of response, when informal supporters do respond well, their actions can buffer against health impacts for survivors, particularly mental health impacts such as depression, suicide attempts and post-traumatic stress disorder,11-13 and can be protective against further abuse.12 ,14 ,15
So, friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues are people who may be aware of the situation, whose input matters, who we might expect to respond in the best interests of survivors, but who don’t always ‘get it right’. But how realistic is that expectation of people who are confused by, enmeshed in, impacted by, and at risk of harm themselves within the situation?
This prompted us to consider whether research had been carried out directly with this population who provide informal support – How much had they been consulted about their experiences? How were they being impacted and/or supported? What did they need in order to look after themselves AND better support the survivor?
So, we began to conduct research in this area to start answering some of these questions:
The first piece of research was a review of the existing literature16 pulling together all the relevant research. We didn’t find any studies which answered our questions directly, but we did find a few which indirectly highlighted how exposure to abusive events or hearing disclosures could impact on the physical health, emotional wellbeing, and safety of informal supporters. Using these findings as a basis, we then carried out an interview study with friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues of survivors, and they described tolls of providing support which were multifaceted, intense, and often long-term. People frequently spoke about the physical health impacts and relationship impacts they had experienced, but by far the most common impacts they described were emotional ones, including: anxiety, depression, hopelessness, powerlessness, anger, frustration, fear, guilt and self-blame.17 Worryingly, several people also reported being on the receiving end of coercively controlling and manipulative behaviours by the perpetrator, and some had experienced direct physical violence.18
Our third piece of research looked at informal supporters’ use of the help available to them via domestic violence helplines. And we found that a really wide variety of informal supporters call, including relatives, friends, neighbours, flatmates, colleagues, bosses, and even relative strangers (for example, a sales assistant in a mobile phone shop who was helping a survivor to change her phone number). People called for a variety of reasons, and were prompted to do so by a range of triggers including: increased concerns about someone’s behaviour, a change in circumstances for the survivor, domestic violence storylines in television dramas, and feeling completely overwhelmed by the impacts they were experiencing. They were often uncertain about whether it was appropriate for them to use the helpline, and needed reassurance that their request for support or advice was legitimate. Once reassured, people explored with helpline staff whether they should be concerned, and how to begin conversations with survivors about what was happening. They also requested practical advice on refuge spaces, professional involvement, survivors’ rights and safety planning. But perhaps their biggest need was the opportunity to be heard, recognised, validated and affirmed, particularly where the situation felt hopeless, had been ongoing for years, or when they were the only person the survivor had told.
Having talked about what the helplines can offer to informal supporters and indicated that a range of people use them, it is also important to acknowledge that most of the informal supporters involved in our research haven’t known about organisations or professionals which they could approach for support, including whether specialist services have any remit to support them.
So where do we go from here? Well, certainly a wider call for an informal supporter/community-oriented approach to domestic violence is necessary, and public campaigns recognising this by targeting informal supporters (like the one previously run in partnership between Bristol City Council, Avon & Somerset Police & Crime Commissioner and the University of Bristol) are a good start.19 Within abuse models, policies and guidelines, it is, of course, appropriate that the survivor remains central, and yet extension is needed to acknowledge and reflect the complexity and diversity around real-life situations, including additional victims and multiple perpetrators. For research, we also need to think beyond traditional ‘bystander’ work, which has tended to focus on people who may witness incidents but aren’t necessarily emotionally invested in a relationship with a survivor. Those more intimately connected with survivors face different and, frequently more challenging, dilemmas, emotions and impacts to navigate. Helping informal supporters to understand what they are noticing, why they might feel conflicted about taking action, and encouraging their use of appropriate services to gain information and support will ultimately benefit both informal supporters and survivors.
For more information about this, and other domestic violence research, please follow us on Twitter: @AlisonGregory73 and @DV_Bristol
Further detail of this study is published in Safe, the domestic abuse quarterly Issue 60. Women’s Aid, 2017. Back issues available from: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/research-and-publications/safe/
LODA is a peer led support group offering:
LODA is currently based in South Bristol however it is open to anyone living in the Bristol area. This group is open to all family members and friends of victims/survivors of domestic abuse regardless of gender.
For more information please contact Sally on 07568486947 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org