Advance Mental Health IDVA
Writing for Mental Health Today, Fida* shares her experience working as a mental health IDVA (independent domestic violence advocate) for Advance, a specialist national women’s charity that empowers women and girls to lead safe, violence-free and equal lives.
A Mental Health IDVA specialises in working with women who have experienced domestic abuse and who also have mental health needs. I work for Advance, a charity that supports thousands of women experiencing domestic abuse, and sadly we know from our latest research that even now, with lockdowns over and restrictions eased, women’s mental health has not recovered since the pandemic.
Key to being a mental health IDVA is understanding complex needs and how trauma affects the mental health of women experiencing domestic violence. We ensure that the women are heard, and their rights understood. Women who have experienced domestic abuse can sometimes face challenges and barriers in accessing the support they need because of their mental health. Because of sometimes limited understanding by the statutory and non-statutory services of how domestic abuse affects the mental health of women, their mental capacity can be questioned. This can be dangerous for the victims, both in terms of their ability to realise their rights and to get the support they need. It can also see the perpetrator getting away with any prosecution.
Addressing the safety of victims at high risk of harm
A typical day for an IDVA is to contact the women we support and review their needs and follow up with referrals to counselling or talking therapy services, as well as requesting updates on any potential escalation if the woman is living with the perpetrator. As an IDVA, I also attend child protection meetings with the victim to advocate on her behalf.
Part of the Mental Health IDVA’s role is to inform and educate professionals about the impact of domestic abuse, from social services to the police and mental health practitioners. I also work with other agencies such as solicitors to share information and advocate on behalf of the survivors as well as attending meetings to provide feedback and explain court proceedings to women who struggle to understand because of their mental health or a language barrier.
Women with experience of manipulation and gaslighting can have additional needs due to the complexity of their mental health, which has been triggered or worsened by the abuse. Again, a lack of understanding by agencies working with victims of domestic abuse can make it difficult for the survivors. A solicitor who was working with one of the women I support with a divorce and finances recently raised concerns around the woman’s mental health, doubting and questioning her mental capacity. The solicitor said the woman couldn’t hold onto information. I explained how the impact of domestic abuse had affected her mental health, that she does have full capacity and can understand everything, but that she might have a loss of memory, anxiety and a lot of stress, which means she is not always able to retain all the information shared with her.
Barriers to getting adequate support
Waiting lists are one of the biggest barriers to women getting effective support. Often you will complete a referral and wait a while, only for them to say there isn’t any space. Then I will have to go back and look at alternatives. However, even if the referral is accepted, the wait for the assessment is very long. It takes about six weeks to hear from the mental health therapy team, and that is just for the assessment.
It is stressful for women, especially those who need immediate support. It is very challenging to explain to someone who is dealing with social services, the courts, her children, the perpetrator, and any other things in her life, that there is a long waiting list. She wants immediate support from a mental health professional - in addition to the emotional support and advocacy that I provide. Not having it puts her at further risk of abuse.
There are a lot of other gaps in support for women experiencing domestic abuse, mainly complex cases with mental health issues involved. I have supported women who had and are still going through severe financial hardship because they made the decision to leave the perpetrator, which has further affected their mental health. This is particularly true of women with no recourse to public funds and who have pre-settlement status. For some, universal credit is not sufficient to live on, or the perpetrator will threaten that they will not provide child maintenance or any financial support unless they come back to them. So the woman is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Raising awareness of the shortfalls inbuilt in professional cultures which are meant to protect victims of domestic abuse
Amongst the shortfalls in the support experiences by victims of domestic abuse is the response of the statutory agencies such as the police and social services. A woman I supported had said that social workers were not complying with the court order regarding a child arrangement order when the child was in the care of the local authority. I explained to the social worker that the woman was suffering from anxiety and depression because she had not had any contact with her daughter for three months despite the court order allowing her to see her child every four weeks. The social worker’s response was, ‘I am working with her child and not the woman’. Women I have supported have contemplated suicide because they could not put up with the abuse, and that was exacerbated when worrying about their children and dealing with social services.
The response of the police can also be quite distressing where there is a lack of awareness. The woman is already going through a lot, her mental health is impacted, and then she is given the wrong information by the police, or she does not feel protected, which adds to her emotional stress.
Being a mental health IDVA is very challenging and stressful because of all the distressing stories we hear from the victims. It requires a lot of motivation, passion, and dedication. But it is a vital role.
It is so important that women’s mental health becomes better understood and more of a priority across not just mental health services but all statutory and non-statutory agencies that work with survivors of domestic abuse.
*not her real name