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Psychological intervention proves 'life-changing' for women experiencing domestic abuse

They are three times more likely to suffer from depression than women in the general population.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Tamara Borgia

TRAINING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE and abuse advocates to deliver psychological support to women experiencing such abuse could significantly improve the health of those affected.

In a randomised controlled trial led by researchers from the University of Bristol in England, women who received the intervention showed reduced symptoms of psychological distress, depression and post-traumatic stress compared to those who received just advocacy.

Women who experience domestic violence and abuse (DVA) are under huge psychological stress. They are three times more likely to suffer from depression and four times more likely to suffer from anxiety than women in the general population.

However, psychological interventions such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that are not adapted to their specific needs often fail.

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research and published in PLOS ONE, compared mental health outcomes for women receiving the intervention with those receiving usual advocacy.

The intervention, Psychological Advocacy Towards Healing (PATH), is specifically tailored to the needs of women who have been abused.

Those receiving the intervention had up to eight one-to-one sessions of “trauma-informed psychological support” with a trained advocate with two follow-up sessions, on top of the usual support that advocates provide.

After 12 months, the women in the intervention group had a greater improvement in mental health than the usual advocacy alone group, with reduced symptoms of psychological distress, depression and post-traumatic stress.

A unique aspect of the intervention is that it was delivered not by counsellors or psychotherapists, but by specially trained domestic violence and abuse advocates in refuges and community DVA services.

Advocates work with individual women who are being or have been abused, aiming to increase their safety, empower them and link them to community services. They provide legal, housing and financial advice, help women access services such as access to refuges, and provide ongoing support.

Reduction in self-blame 

Researchers asked women who took part in the trial about their experiences. Women receiving the intervention reported valuing the educational, psychological and emotional elements of the intervention and feeling safe to explore repressed emotions for the first time.

They also reported experiencing a reduction in self-blame, improved sense of identity and greater self-esteem. Women receiving usual advocacy, in contrast, reported having unmet needs for psychological and emotional support.

Professor Gene Feder, a GP and domestic violence research lead at the Centre for Academic Primary Care who led the study, said: “Domestic violence often causes long-term damage to the mental health of survivors.

In this study we found that the combination of advocacy and psychological support to women seeking help from services gives added benefit compared to advocacy on its own.

“Our findings are important because they show that an intervention that is both brief in duration and brief to implement – it only takes 25 days to train the advocates – improves psychological wellbeing and mental health of this very vulnerable group one year down the line.”

If you have been affected by domestic abuse and would like to talk, contact the below numbers or visit SafeIreland.ie.

  • Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900
  • Amen (for men): 046 902 3718
  • Cope Galway Domestic Abuse Service: 091 565 985 

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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