During the first lockdown, BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire subtly hinted at the traumatic effect of lockdowns for many thousands of people, through a series of numbers written on her hand. These numbers were seemingly innocuous, maybe just a hastily scrawled contact. However, what she had done was to write the number for the National Domestic Abuse hotline, while also not referencing it as a story; protecting those who may be even more caged in than before.

Government instructions to 'stay at home, protect the NHS’ has been life-threatening for many caught up in abusive relationships. Therefore, the demand for services has also only increased. The charity Refuge reported a 25% increase in calls early at the start of the first lockdown. And has prompted the Prime Minister in the announcement of lockdown 3 to explicitly exempt those trapped in abusive relationships from staying at home.

More recently the Government has promoted the pharmacy scheme Ask for ANI, inspired by the 2017 Asking for Angela campaign which was a discreet code for assistance if a customer felt vulnerable on a date.

If a customer Ask for ANI, they will be taken by a staff member into a private consultation room to discuss the next step in leaving their abusive relationship, such as contacting the police or accessing support through a domestic abuse organisation.

Unhealthy stereotypes about domestic abuse

Reaching those suffering at home during lockdown has been undeniably difficult, but the message does seem to be working. A spokesperson for SafeNet Domestic Abuse Service, part of the Calico Group said that their demand for domestic abuse support services has risen dramatically during the pandemic. Sadly, there are still too few refuge spaces and, despite working to extend safe accommodation services, many victims and survivors, women and children, and male victims, cannot be accommodated due to lack of space.

The spokesperson added that while domestic abuse is more widely discussed than in the past it still retains the unhealthy bruised eye stereotype, when in fact, abusive relationships take on many different forms which people should be aware of for their own relationships and to identify in others.

“Domestic abuse is not just physical violence. If we only relate images of bruised women and children, then victims may not recognise their own situation as abuse. Coercive control plays a major role in domestic abuse and is often present in the form of controlling behaviour, high levels of control, stalking, isolation and economic abuse, forced marriage and honour-based violence, which are also key parts to domestic abuse. The impact of violence and controlling behaviour have long term devastating effects on someone’s mental health”, the spokesperson explained.

Emotional and psychological manipulations, such as gaslighting, are often employed by the perpetrator to isolate victims/survivors from their family and friends and supportive relationships are replaced with controlling interactions. And routinely, the spokesperson said that others outside the relationship are elicited in the psychological manipulation:

“The use of ‘flying monkeys’ – selected people who, often oblivious, continue the manipulation and abuse on behalf of the abuser. Creating a perfect cycle of abuse and a psychological prison with invisible walls for the victim, without the need for physical abuse.”

Moving forwards post-pandemic the spokesperson mentioned that there is an urgent need for more safe refuge accommodation and support in community settings, and increased funding would enable an effective response and new ways of reaching families in isolation.

At the present time, there is no specialist support by local authorities for children and young people traumatised by domestic abuse, they are currently unrecognised as victims or survivors of domestic abuse, however, the new Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 will be in place by 1st April 2021, and work is on-going to ensure that the bill protects all victims and survivors of abuse, including children and young people.

It is clear from the last year that moving forward, extra funding for services is essential, but there also needs to be a further cultural discussion on the form that domestic abuse takes so that manipulative and coercive behaviours are identified in our partners and possibly in ourselves. And while the pandemic has trapped many victims in a further closeness to their abuser, SafeNet, Refuge, Victoria Derbyshire, and Talk to ANI are bringing out what is happening behind closed doors and into the light.