Importance of specialist mental health interventions for children experiencing domestic abuse

Janina Engler-Williams is a Research Analyst at SafeLives. In this blog she explores our Children’s Insights dataset, and what the data shows about the benefits of specialist mental health support.

This is particularly true of children and young people experiencing abuse at home. Recognising the negative effects exposure to abuse can have on the mental health of young people is vital to understanding how best to respond to the whole family. We recently published our Insights children and young people national dataset, drawn from specialist children’s domestic abuse services across the UK supporting survivors below the age of 18.

One of the most striking insights from our data was that a third of children and young people who had been exposed to abuse in their household were suffering from mental health issues. For children being subjected to direct abuse at home, the proportion was even higher, with caseworkers identifying that two in four children accessing support had mental health issues.

Notably, the figures for children and young people experiencing mental health issues as a result of abuse are similar to those in the adult dataset, an important indicator that we need to be taking the mental health of survivors under 18 just as seriously as adult survivors. However, it is also important to highlight how mental health issues can look different for young survivors, in order for services to fully understand how to tailor mental health support specifically to them.

A good example of this is making the link between domestic abuse, negative behaviour and mental health. Case workers found that almost half of the children in our dataset said that they had self-esteem issues and low confidence upon accessing support. A third of young people were also demonstrating risk taking behaviour, and two in three boys in our dataset were displaying destructive coping mechanisms. Shockingly, case workers found that one in five children also felt a sense of blame or responsibility for the abuse they were witnessing.

We know from our Insights dataset that when mental health interventions that are specifically tailored to the needs of children and young people are implemented, the results are overwhelmingly positive. In particular, interventions that address the whole family as well as the living and learning environment of the child are central to providing effective mental health support. This could include delivering joint parent and child support sessions, and ensuring mental health interventions are delivered alongside interventions that focus on family relationships.

Our data revealed that almost all children and young people who received 1-2-1 support sessions as part of mental health support, reported an improvement in their wellbeing directly as a result of this. Almost all the children in our dataset who were supported to access some form of counselling felt less of a sense of blame afterwards. Four in five children were demonstrating healthier coping mechanisms after specialist support and three quarters felt happier in their living and learning environment after mental health interventions.

Children and young people are dealing with a myriad of complicated social and emotional pressures in the classroom, playground and at home every day. Understandably, these factors alone have an impact on young people’s mental health. However, what our latest dataset reveals is that children and young people living in an environment where they are constantly scared and exposed to abuse face additional vulnerabilities to their mental health which need to be taken into account. The mental health needs of young survivors cannot be tackled in isolation, and our children and young people’s dataset gives us an important insight into how interventions which include family, friends and the learning environment of children are crucial to giving young people the support they need to tackle their mental health challenges and move forward to live a happier healthier life.

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