How domestic violence and abuse can influence mental health

Almost 30 women a day will attempt to kill themselves as a result of domestic violence. It is vital that we work to understand the effect domestic violence has on millions, both physically and mentally.

As part of the London NHS’ campaign to highlight the importance of open conversations and greater awareness of mental health this October, Lorren Stainton, Safeguarding Programme Officer for NHS England (London) discusses the huge impact that domestic violence has on millions of people in the UK, both physically and mentally.

In the spirit of this week’s theme, creating an understanding and spreading awareness of depression and anxiety, I want to focus on one of the causes of these mental health conditions and what we are doing in London to improve care and help for those who have experienced domestic violence and abuse (DV&A).

Did you know that every day almost 30 women will attempt to kill themselves as a result of experiencing domestic abuse, and every week 3 of these women will successfully take their own lives? (1)

DV&A is and continues to be a huge problem worldwide but not everyone is aware of quite how prevalent it really is. For example, in 2012, it was estimated that of all the women killed during that year, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members (2). Around 25% of women experience domestic violence at least once during their adult lives (3) and for men the figure is 17%.

Working as the Safeguarding Programme Officer for NHS England (London) has opened my eyes to the lack of open dialogue in society when it comes to DV&A and a general lack of understanding as to the broad range of behaviour that is defined as DV&A.

The Home Office’s definition is, “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological; physical; sexual; financial, and/or; emotional.”

What’s certain is that survivors of DV&A are unsurprisingly at risk of developing symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.

It’s very hard to know exactly how many people have received NHS care due to DV&A, but we do know that studies of severe DV&A suggest high rates of recurring mental health conditions for victims ranging from 30% to 60% (4). Studies also show that women who have experienced intimate partner violence are almost twice as likely to experience depression (4).

When NHS Mental Health Trust employees were asked about DV&A recently, one stated that:

“I believe it is the highest reported crime and that many mental health service users are victims of domestic violence.” — Nurse, NHS Mental Health Trust

Given the prevalence of this crime and its influence on mental health, Barnet Enfield and Haringey NHS Mental Health Trust has taken a proactive approach to safeguarding against DV&A and is piloting a new approach to help those who have experienced DV&A.

This pilot is being funded by us here at NHS England (London) and it means that an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) will be placed in the same location as those patients receiving care.

This trial programme is being supported by Women’s Aid, SafeLives and Kings College London and practically, it will be focusing on training and awareness raising; ongoing specialist support, and the direct referral of patients for support by the advocate.

It’s fundamentally clear that DV&A has implications for mental health, especially depression and anxiety.

We need to think critically about why people have poor mental health outcomes and understand the social causes if we are to treat people in a holistic way and see a reduction in incidence rates across the region.

If you are experiencing DV&A, know someone who might need support, or are a professional who wants to know more, please contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247.

If you are using violence and would like support to change, please contact the Respect freephone helpline 0808 802 4040 (Monday-Friday 9am-5pm).

Download the NHS Safeguarding App for more information on safeguarding.

Lorren Stainton

Lorren Stainton is an NHS England (London Region) Safeguarding Programme Officer. She studied a double degree in Behavioural Science and Science (Biology) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and went on to tutor in Developmental Psychology. She has held project management and policy roles working in the Domestic and Family Violence field. Her interests include: domestic violence, safeguarding, child development, social justice and Australian Aboriginal health and wellbeing.


1 Walby & Allen, 2004

2 UN Women, 2014

3 Council of Europe, 2006

4 Howard et al., 2010