Women experiencing domestic violence often describe the mental torture caused by their abuser.
Abusive relationships have a significant negative impact to a woman’s mental health. When a woman is continually being abused by an intimate partner and put down, her autonomy and belief in herself is continually eroded. Her abuser may use her mental pain against her, accusing her of being ‘insecure’, of being ‘paranoid’, of being ‘crazy’. The cycle of abuse, physical, emotional and sexual is inherently damaging to a woman's mental health.
In the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) we have been working to improve women’s access to women-sensitive health services for more than 40 years. Our members, working with women on the front-line, including in women’s refuges and domestic violence services, tell us about the significant link between violence and women’s mental and physical health.
The everyday inequalities women face impact on their mental wellbeing. Women are much more likely to be the victim of domestic or sexual abuse, to parent alone, to be engaged in low paid precarious work, and to be the main provider of unpaid care. The reality of women’s lives means they can have specific mental health needs and require particular types of mental health supports.
This year, NWCI launched a docu-film, ‘Out of Silence: Women’s Mental Health in Ireland’ to show the different mental health experiences women face. The first film of its kind in Ireland, ‘Out of Silence’ explores mental health from a women’s perspective through interviews with women, health professionals and researchers. In the film, Emma Murphy describes how her experience of violence impacted on her sense of self. While experiencing domestic violence, she bravely shared her story on social media, showing the devastation that the abuse created in her life. According to Women’s Aid, when Emma’s video went viral they experienced an increase of 48% in the calls to their helpline.
Women experiencing violence may be in contact with domestic violence and mental health services. It is crucial that these services listen to women’s experiences and coordinate to provide the best supports to women. It is also important to recognise the barriers for women in abusive relationships and for those that have left abusers to disclose and seek support from mental health services. This is particularly the case for mothers who are have real concerns about the impact of seeking mental health support and how they will be viewed and portrayed as mothers in civil and family court proceedings. As part of a state response to domestic abuse all women should be automatically offered public access to therapeutic services.
With our partners – including Women’s Aid and women like Emma - NWCI will continue to campaign to ensure women and girls are safe from domestic violence and that all women can receive the supports, including the women-sensitive mental health services, they need.
Orla O'Connor is Director of National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), the leading national women’s membership organisation in Ireland, with over 190 member groups