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19 October 2020
Words Simone Worthing
October is National Mental Health Month in Australia. This week we continue our series of articles looking at different aspects of mental health and the help that is out there, for everyone. Our coverage features an interview with Jenny, a psychologist and counsellor with The Salvation Army Strength2Strength Family Violence program in south-eastern Victoria.
Almost one in 10 Australian women in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or became worse during the pandemic.
A survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology also reveals more than half of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence before the COVID-19 crisis said the violence had become more frequent or severe since the pandemic began.
The Strength2Strength program is a client-centred and trauma-informed therapeutic response for children and their mothers who are victim-survivors of family violence. This response includes therapeutic services delivered via outreach and through centre-based sessions. During COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, much of this work has been done online and by phone.
The Strength2Strength program operates through a partnership of key service providers including The Salvation Army, Family Life, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, The South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault and Peninsula Health.
“We are not, though, a crisis response service,” explains Jenny. “We focus on supporting women and children in their healing process once the family violence has ended and they are in a safe and stable environment. This environment is important for our participants, so they can safely process some of their experiences of trauma and strengthen parent-child relationships that may have been impacted by family violence.
“The client-focused program offers a comprehensive assessment, both adult and child therapeutic support, and access to individual and group peer support. Our participants are typically referred from the Salvos family violence teams, or other partnership organisations where they have been able to access crisis support.
“Perpetrators often use power and control within family violence, which over time can impact a person’s confidence in themselves and their decision-making ability. We empower the participants to be in charge of their own journey. Having this control is one of the most important parts of their healing.”
Many of the program participants are women who have left violent relationships and are now single mums. A few have remained safe in their homes as the perpetrators – usually their partners – are engaged with men’s behaviour change programs.
Strength2Strength has also seen an increase in anxiety and depression among program participants, much of which has been exacerbated by lockdowns and pandemic restrictions.
“During lockdown, people’s daily routine, such as going to work, or sending kids to school, was lost,” says Jenny. “Instead, they were supporting [sometimes multiple] kids with home learning, as well as working from home themselves, and may not have been able to access their typical coping strategies such as chatting over coffee with a friend or heading to the shops. Social isolation restrictions also meant that people were less able to access support, from both family and friends, as well as professional, increasing that sense of isolation. It’s been an incredibly stressful time for everyone, particularly so for our clients, where sometimes getting through the day with a smile was a massive win.
“‘Enough’ is a favourite word of one of our participants. She does what she can each day, and rather than focusing on what she hasn’t been able to achieve, she focuses on what she has. This highlights the importance of self-awareness and exercising self-compassion. Even if it’s only a little, then that’s enough.”
Jenny explained, though, that this is not everyone’s experience and some of the families are finding it more difficult and stressful. This is especially so when the children aren’t understanding what is happening and a lot is going on at home.
“While some participants experienced difficulty adjusting during lockdown and face uncertainty in the ‘new normal’, their journeys have demonstrated incredible strength and resilience – qualities which can support their adjustment into life after COVID-19,” she says. “As we move forward, it’s a time to reflect on what we have learnt from the past and how we can apply that to our future.”
Jenny explains that, as people emerge from lockdowns and restrictions are eased, being aware of, and kind to, one another is vital.
“As individuals, we have experienced this pandemic isolated within our homes. However, as a community, it is something we have experienced together. It was a reminder that individual actions make up that community, including the way we treat one another.
“Often people can get caught up in the buzz of daily life, and don’t always take that time to reach out or connect to those around us. Kindness extends that ‘olive branch’ every place we go. This helps negate the social isolation we have all felt and brings a sense of connection and support, which is important as we adjust.
“Sometimes, when we just keep going, we may miss signs that we are getting increasingly stressed or overwhelmed, so it’s important to be kind to ourselves, too. This could be just taking that five minutes each day to check in and see how you’re feeling. Or focusing on eating well, exercising, or getting enough sleep. Or sometimes this kindness might be a coffee and chat with a friend, or being compassionate to ourselves around what is realistic to achieve.
“It seems conversations around mental health issues have become more common, and less stigmatised. People are more willing now to say they’re not okay, take a mental health day, or access professional help if needed.”
NORMALISATION OF SUPPORT
As the pandemic eases in Australia, Jenny says that for people with various levels of mental health struggles, accessing formal and informal support is being normalised.
“This has bonded the community in a strange way,” she explains. “It’s okay not to feel okay, you don’t have to have the best day every day and you can take a break if you need to.
“That said, it’s important to acknowledge that some people are doing it tough and might not have the same support networks as others. This is where that community kindness is important. For ourselves, we just need to know where and when to get help, find what works, and keep being proactive around our mental wellbeing.”
For information on Salvation Army Family and Domestic Violence services, click here.
EVERYONE DESERVES THE RIGHT TO BE FREE FROM DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Freedom from violence is a human right. Family and domestic violence is a continued pattern of abusive and controlling behaviour towards a partner or family member. This is an ongoing crisis that seriously threatens the health, wellbeing and lives of thousands of women and children in Australia every day.
RESPONDING TO FAMILY AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
A person may be experiencing abuse if anybody in their life:
Supporting people experiencing family violence includes:
For more information and contact details for family and domestic violence services, visit salvosmagazine.org.au/find-help/ family-and-domestic-violence