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13 August 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:46pm

“I’d have saved years if someone had asked”: Mental health services must ask about abuse

Some 38 per cent of women with a mental health problem have experienced domestic abuse.

By Andrea Woodside

I have been accessing mental health services for pretty much my whole life. It wasn’t until two years ago, at 47 years old, that anyone asked me about my experiences of abuse. The question was life changing.

Before that, I had been living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder for over 20 years. I’d been in and out of crisis care and made attempts on my own life. My whole adult life had been wrapped up in a tirade of poor mental health.

But in 2017, when a psychiatrist finally asked me about my experiences of abuse, everything suddenly become clear. It’s bizarre to think I had got to the age of 47 and no one had ever asked me about it before.

It was then that my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was changed: I was now told I was living with severe complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the prolonged and traumatic sexual and emotional abuse I’d experienced. It all started to make sense.

I remember the exact moment the psychiatrist asked me: “Tell me about any experience you’ve had of abuse”. I was shocked: how did they know? I’d never been asked that before.

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I experienced abuse as both a child and adult. As a child, it was sexual abuse at the hands of someone at school; as an adult, I entered an abusive relationship with a partner and went through an incredibly isolating two years. Needless to say, my mental health really suffered at his hands.

It’s so clear that my poor mental health as an adult came from my prolonged experience of abuse as a child. It was also those experiences, low self-esteem and poor mental health, that meant I was more vulnerable to abusive relationships as an adult.

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I now know that’s common; some 38 per cent of women with a mental health problem have experienced domestic abuse.

What’s scary is how long it took for services to ask. Sometimes I think about the time it would have saved me if only they had asked before.

My partner used everything against me to control me – including my experience of childhood abuse. When you’re in a relationship like that, your whole world kind of implodes and you start to think that it’s your fault that someone is abusing you.

Now, looking back, I keep thinking – why didn’t anyone just ask, just once? That’s all it would have taken for me to be able to link my poor mental health to my experiences of trauma.

It comes as no surprise to me that new findings published today by Agenda show mental health services are failing women by not asking about domestic abuse. I hate to think how many more women like me went years without finally getting the help they need to address their experiences of abuse.

As a survivor, it’s heartening to feel the recent increased political awareness about domestic abuse. For example, the Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through parliament will introduce greater protection of survivors.

As someone who is active in the survivor community and who works in mental health, I feel passionately about the need for services to ask, in a safe and supportive way, about experiences of domestic abuse.

That’s why I’m pleased to support Ask and Take Action, a new campaign by Agenda and a number of charities and leading experts, to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure public services are asking about domestic abuse.

So often, women develop a mental health problem when they’ve been in a domestically abusive relationship. We need services and therapy that takes into account the violence and abuse we’ve experienced.

We need what’s known as “trauma-informed care” – care that doesn’t risk potentially traumatising us again and treats us in a safe and therapeutic environment with an understanding of our histories and our experience.

Being asked about domestic abuse changed my life – but I wish it had happened for me sooner. Now it’s time to make the necessary changes so that future survivors can get the right support before it is too late.

Andrea is 49 and a campaigner for Agenda.

Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, is campaigning to ensure staff in public services make trained enquiries into abuse. Find out more about Agenda’s Ask and Take Action campaign.