Policy blog

'Not just witnesses': children, domestic abuse and mental health

This blog was written by a SafeLives Pioneer, for World Mental Health Day 2019. Content note: this blog contains descriptions of domestic abuse and coercive control, and the mental health impacts

I am my father’s pride and joy; the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Whenever he talks about how much he cares for me, he’s moved to tears. He loves giving me surprise birthday presents. He boasts about my achievements to his many friends. He loves me so much that he always sends me two happy birthday messages – one by text, then another posted publicly on Facebook (in his own words, “so everyone else can see it”).

My father is a perpetrator of narcissistic domestic abuse and coercive control, and has been for decades. But the vast majority of harm he’s caused me happened in the first 15 years of my life.

Even though Rosie Duffield’s incredibly powerful speech to parliament last week was about her experiences of intimate partner violence, I related to a lot of it. That alternation between intense affection and abuse, that calculated manipulation, that fear of punishment – it’s all experienced by children too. 

When my father demanded that my mum sit motionless and silent, he didn’t have to tell me the same rules applied to me. If I irritated him at all, I knew things would get worse. I took on responsibility for his moods in the same way my mum did. We did everything possible to keep him happy in order to protect each other.

When I did something he approved of – like fawning over his interests while distancing myself from my mum’s, or enthusiastically telling his friends how fantastic he was to help him hide his true self – it would placate him. My mum would have a short break from the worst of his behaviours, and I would be rewarded with love and affection.

When he gaslighted my mum into thinking the abuse was her fault, he gaslighted me too. When we watched him throw my new jacket in the bin, then insist it was actually my mum who had done it, I questioned my own reality. Every time he used his eyes to ‘dog-whistle’, subtly conveying his fury with her, she heard it loud and clear, and so did I. I knew it meant we would be walking on even more eggshells than usual all day, and what would happen at home that evening. When he threw frying pans and plant pots, I might not have been his intended target, but I still had to dodge out of the way.

I never felt safe while he was around. Being in a constant state of fight or flight emotionally and physically exhausted me, but that was how I stayed safe. I played out a dozen scenarios in my head, calculating how I could best minimise the harm he was about to cause. The effects of this hypervigilance are still with me today. I often had days off school with a stomach ache, a common symptom of anxiety in children. As an adult, I’ve taken time off work due to anxiety and the fatigue it causes several times. Even a loud noise can send my brain into overdrive, and living with complex PTSD means I frequently experience emotional flashbacks.

He constantly looked for ways to use me as a weapon against my mum. One of his favourite tactics was making me repeat horrible things to her. I felt immensely guilty about this, and internalised the messages from him that I was a terrible daughter when I didn’t obey him. I was convinced that whether I did it or not, I was a bad person. I remember self-harming when I was only seven years old.

When we left the family home, my father soon found out our new address. He screamed at my mum through the letterbox for what felt like hours, and I vividly remember how terrified I was that he might break the door down or smash a window to get in and hurt us.

Once we moved out, he found new ways of controlling her through me. He regularly did things that put me at risk of harm in some small way – at the time I thought he was just a cool dad, but looking back I can see he did those things as cleverly veiled threats to my mum. Over time, using me as a tool developed into direct abuse. The effects on me of the domestic abuse and direct abuse are all mixed together, but the root cause of both is the same – his entitled, vindictive need to control everything around him to make himself feel superior.

Although I had a childhood, I grew up very quickly. I was depressed, anxious, self-harmed, suicidal, felt helpless and worthless, wet myself for years, had recurring nightmares, always had stomach aches and colds, regularly refused food for days, engaged in dangerous sexual behaviour, had panic attacks when I did something wrong at school, and extreme mood swings at home.

I hope this little window into my life helps people understand that children are victims of domestic abuse just as much as adults are, and the effects on their mental health can be just as long-term, wide-ranging and severe. At 29, I still struggle significantly with my mental health as a result of my father’s abuse. I have low self-worth, persistent negative thought patterns, and still find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. I have an incredible support network and millions of coping strategies that I’ve been refining my whole life, but I will always carry the impact with me.


Remembering Banaz

In 2006, 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod was killed in London on the orders of her father and uncle, after she left her husband. Her sister Payzee has shared this piece with us to mark Honour Based Abuse Memorial Day on Sunday 14 July.

My name is Payzee Mahmod. I am Banaz Mahmod’s younger sister. Banaz and I only have 16 months in our age difference, so it always felt like we were twins. We were always in sync. We liked the same things and just got along so well. When we were both married quite young, we decided the only way to stay very close together was to live together, even when we were both married. We took a two bedroom flat and everyday was just fun. Even though we did not enjoy being married, we had each other and that was all we needed.

Banaz was a very sweet girl, on the quiet side. She was a bit of an extrovert. She would laugh loud and find silly things funny – she was a bundle of joy. Always smiling. She was very mature; out of me and her I would be the one getting up to silly things and because she was always with me, she would usually get in trouble with me. She was always so supportive; she would always praise you for doing something good. I miss her so much. I miss swapping clothes with her and getting ready together, doing each other’s make up. She has left such a big hole in my life, and I will never forget her, her contagious smile.

Banaz told me every time she went to the police station. She would be so confident and hopeful in what she had done. I remember when she opened up to me about her husband being physically abusive to her, I went with her to our local Boots and we purchased a disposable camera and took photos of her injuries. She took those photos with her to the police station. They let her go home. She went even further and gave the police a list of names of the people she believed would take her life. I listen to my sister in that interview room and my heart breaks. How could anyone listen to someone who is so fearful and allow them to just walk out of that room?

I understand there was such a lack of knowledge on ‘honour’-based violence at the time, however Banaz made it very clear she feared for her life and went into excruciating detail about the abuse she suffered. This just makes me feel physically sick every time I think about it. I can’t move past it. I just keep thinking, ‘but how were all her cries just ignored?’

I am in no way taking any credit away from those who did fight for Banaz when she had already passed a tragic death. I will be forever grateful to those who have tried to keep Banaz’s memory alive and have fought to get her justice.

I truly hope no one else has to go through something so tragic, but I know it is happening all over the world. I would say if you find yourself in a situation like Banaz’s do not stay within it. I know that is harder said than done. Alert the police and stress the importance – I would like to say I truly hope that more police officers are trained to deal with victims of ‘honour’ better, and if they are not trained I would hope they do not allow anyone who says they are in danger to leave and go back in to the danger zone.  

To domestic abuse professionals, or anyone who receives a disclosure of ‘honour’-based abuse I will say act! Act immediately. Victims of ‘honour’ do not have it easy asking for help, they are scared already and in a terrible situation. So if you come into contact with somebody asking for your help please help them, give them assistance in getting out and don’t waste any time.

And finally I would add, if you are within a community where ‘honour’-based crimes are committed, I urge you desperately to start the conversation around it and challenge this inhumane ideology. Educate the next generation, get involved in raising awareness and engage with authorities trying to put an end to this. Protect the victims, not the perpetrators.

If you're experiencing or are at risk of forced marriage or 'honour'-based abuse, you can call the Karma Nirvana helpline on 0800 5999 247 (9am-5pm, Mon-Fri) or the Forced Marriage Unit: 0207 008 0151

We will not end domestic abuse without supporting LGBT+ rights

A member of SafeLives staff writes on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots

It’s 50 years since a group of LGBT+ people stood up in protest of police raids at The Stonewall Inn, New York. The riots were led by trans women of colour, most notably Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. It’s important to remember them. Marsha went on to be a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and was a member of AIDS activist group ACT UP.

The Stonewall Riots were the catalyst for a Gay Rights Movement spanning decades, the legacy of which we see today at Pride events throughout the world. Pride continues the fight for the right to love.

I came out at 19 and exploded into my first same-sex relationships. It was wonderful. It felt like freedom. I was exploring everything. And at the same time, I started experiencing discrimination and hate crime because of who I was in love with. As a femme presenting queer woman, I also experienced this from the LGBT community. Don’t assume that misogyny is just the topic of men! I became well versed in defending my relationship – it became a sanctuary against a world which was often accepting but sometimes very hostile. And sometimes not ‘very’, but quietly and insidiously hostile; erasing and questioning my truth.

At 22, I had grieved my first love and I was in a relationship with a woman eight years my senior. It’s not a lot – unless you’re 22, and then it feels like a generation. This was not healthy. It was a relationship counsellor who cited it as domestic abuse for the first time, and I started the slow and difficult and totally non-linear process of extricating myself.

There were many barriers to me leaving that relationship, homophobia was most definitely one of them. I experienced homophobia in police responses and my interactions with healthcare.

Being LGBT+ can mean living on the fringes. Marginalisation is common, discrimination still happens and – at the scary end of that spectrum – abuse by the very public services who are meant to keep us safe. This is changing. I am so proud and pleased to see the steps we have taken in the 13 years since I came out. Every year, Pride gets bigger. Every year we see more organisations and businesses pledge their alligence to equalty. And we hear more and more stories of services serving the community well!

I am so proud to work for an organisation that is committed to ending homophobia, biphobia and transphobia and listening to the voices of all people impacted by domestic abuse. For every person who speaks out, we learn a little bit more. Fifty years ago Marsha P Johnson made a stand against discrimination and institutionalised homophobia, and since then we have won the right to marry, to serve openly in the army and have overturned Section 28.  That is the power of voices.


If you're LGBT+ and experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the Galop helpline on 0800 999 5428


Opening up the conversation: why engaging men and boys is so important

Josh Taylor is a Research Analyst at SafeLives, working primarily on Drive - our innovative programme in partnership with Respect and Social Finance, which addresses the behaviour of high-harm perpetrators. He is also the research lead on a new project, gathering the voices and experiences of men and boys.

I’ve been working in the research team at SafeLives for more than five years. When I started I didn’t know much about domestic abuse. I knew what it was, but I wasn’t aware of the sheer scale of the problem. Every year, it’s estimated over two million adults in the UK suffer some form of domestic abuse. I have learnt so much working in the sector and continue to learn even now.

When I decided to write this blog, I mentioned it to my mum. She had been in an abusive relationship when I was about 10. It’s odd, because even though I have been working in the sector for so long, I have never really thought of this as my story, or how it may have affected me.

The abuse that we suffered was mainly coercive control. Everything was fine before we moved in. Then the little digs started. He always had to be the ‘big man’ and wanted me and my brother to be the same. He was also an alcoholic, and when we moved in his drinking got worse, to the point where he would be driving us places while drunk. The final straw came when he tried to use me and my brother against our mum. We had been due to go on holiday, but my mum no longer wanted to go due to his drunken behaviour. When mum was out he tried to convince us that she was evil, that she was the reason for the arguments and she was the reason we weren’t going on holiday.

My mum found out about this and told us that we didn’t have to live like this, we can leave if we want to. So we did. Mum phoned our grandad and he came and picked us up. We stayed with my grandparents for a few days, and then lived with friends for two or three months while my mum tried to find us somewhere to live.

The strange thing is I barely remember any of this. I have two memories from this time: one of my mum shouting at him, clearly in distress, and the other of us waiting outside for my grandad to arrive. With both memories I don’t know what happened before or after. Because I couldn’t remember, I’ve never really stopped to think about how this experience might have affected who I am today.

I believe that domestic abuse is a societal issue, and it is only by working together that we will be able to make the changes needed to end domestic abuse for everyone. That’s why I’m so excited about the new strategy that SafeLives has set out on, and why I’m particularly excited about this new project.

Through this project we’ll be starting a conversation with men and boys. We know that we cannot reduce harm and end domestic abuse without bringing men and boys into the conversation. As I know from my own experience, domestic abuse is experienced by men and boys. This could be as children in the home, as young people and adults in heterosexual and LGBT+ relationships, and in the potential for child to parent abuse.

Evidence also tells us that men and boys are more likely to harm other people and to harm themselves. In order to start to understand why this might be we’ll be asking men and boys about their attitudes towards relationships, masculinity and gender roles.

The information and the voices we gather will help to inform our work, with the ultimate aim of ending domestic abuse. There is already a lot of great work going on in this area from the likes of Respect, the ManKind Initiative as well as a number of academics and we’re pleased to be working alongside them. Together we can end domestic abuse for everyone, for good.

By JoshT

The difference a truly supportive employer can make

Suzanne Jacob is Chief Executive of SafeLives

In the last six months my dad has died and my mum has had a stroke. I don’t write about it here for sympathy or to expose family grief, but instead to explore what I’ve needed from my employer during what is still one of the most difficult periods of my life to date. It might seem odd for a charity CEO to talk about their ‘employer’. Afterall, aren’t I the boss? In reality my employer manifests in multiple ways, particularly in our Chair of Trustees, and – because we’re a small, mission driven organisation – in my relationship with the staff team. So this is my attempt to address some of my lessons learned to employers and team members in other organisations – whether voluntary, public or commercial sector.

Over the last ten months I have needed a great deal of flexibility from my employer. I have had to arrive at meetings late and leave early. I have disappeared ‘home’ 200 miles away at short notice. I have been teary in the office and had to decide how much to say about why, and I’ve worked weird times of the day and week instead of more traditional hours. I’ve checked my phone a great deal and I’m sure that multiple times I’ve looked and sounded distracted and not at my best.

Not all of these changes to my professional life would have been acceptable if I worked somewhere else. I know that. Layer that up, then, with the possibility that members of your workforce or team might need comparable levels of flexibility for less easily explicable reasons than prostate cancer and stroke.

What if, instead of common, normalised physical health issues, my behaviour in the workplace was due to the fact that I was trying to sustain myself in safety while someone systematically tried to attack it? If I wore trousers to cover cigarette burns on my legs, or I needed time off to go to court, wearing what I wanted to, what I really wanted to, for the first time in several years?

I warmly welcome the steps major UK employers such as EY and Vodafone are taking to provide their staff with compassionate leave, to deal with domestic abuse they might be experiencing or have experienced. What’s vital, as they do so and others consider it, is to think about how you create a culture in which it’s ok to ask. A couple of years ago, I spoke to a police officer who had initiated significant change in her force about the response to officers who had experienced abuse. She noticed that although they had a reasonable looking policy, there was no record of anyone having accessed it. Ever. What she realised, as she spoke to her colleagues, was that officers and staff were afraid of a set of perceptions that might be levied at them if they disclosed their situation. Melani, one of our own team and herself an ex-police officer, talks about that in more detail here.

Police officers aren’t alone in this. In another instance, I was told that the only trigger for a woman finally telling her employer what was happening outside work was because she was being put on formal performance management measures for poor attendance and inattention. Fearing the loss of her job – her only way to retain an income and the prospect of changing her situation – she took a giant leap of faith and spoke out. She disclosed to someone she barely knew, because she saw in her colleague’s diary an upcoming meeting with SafeLives. She thought it suggested someone might listen, and help.

Companies we speak to are understandably nervous about their role. Many organisations still don’t have a culture in which talking about cancer, mental health problems, or divorce would be a normal part of conversation, so how can they possibly facilitate a process of opening up about abuse? I understand that. And yet, the prize is worth it. Being able to say with authenticity that yours is an organisation where people are supported – appropriately, meaningfully supported – makes you somewhere people will want to be. And want to be their best.

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