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Victims and survivors of sexual and domestic abuse are being encouraged to come forward for NHS help and care, as part of a major campaign backed by a £20 million boost to specialist services.
Two new clinical lead roles for domestic violence and sexual assault are also being created, alongside dedicated domestic violence support for the NHS and integrated care systems across the country.
The new campaign – which has backing from a royal and a former prime minister – is launching on the first day of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week, and will highlight the specialist support offered at dozens of sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) in England.
While the majority of victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse are women and girls, health service leaders are encouraging anyone who needs support to turn to the NHS at one of the country’s 24-hour centres. SARCs offer confidential specialist, practical, medical and emotional support to anyone who has been raped, sexually assaulted, or abused – regardless of when the incident happened.
A new survey found two in five people aren’t sure or do not know where to get help after being sexually assaulted, with 72% unaware there are NHS specialist sexual assault services who can offer confidential support. More than half of people who have experienced sexual assault also say they did not seek help afterwards.
It comes as NHS England announces a £20 million funding boost for sexual assault and domestic violence services over the next three years, including enhanced support services for victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse who have complex, trauma-related mental health needs.
The campaign, which will raise awareness of the centres and the support available, will also release a powerful short film that addresses common questions and concerns many people face after experiencing sexual assault, abuse or rape, including not knowing who or where to turn to.
Kate Davies, CBE, the NHS director of sexual assault services commissioning, said: “Sexual assault or domestic abuse can happen to anyone – any age, ethnicity, gender or social circumstance – and it may be a one-off event or happen repeatedly.
“But sadly, thousands of people aren’t sure where to turn to get the help they need, and today the NHS is making it clear that you can turn to us.
“We provide confidential emotional, medical or practical support at our sexual assault referral centres, a dedicated safe space for anyone who needs it, regardless of when the incident happened.
“We know it can take a lot to pick up the phone and take that first step – we are here at any time of day or night, and we will support you through the whole process, whatever you decide to do”.
In 2015, 28-year-old Laura Currer was spiked on a night out with friends in Newcastle, and sexually assaulted.
Now Chair of the National NHS England Sexual Abuse and Assault Services Lived Experience Group, Laura said: “I know from experience how hard it can be to seek help in these situations, but after I was assaulted I will never forget the kind, caring and compassionate staff at SARCs who were there to hold my hand during one of the worst moments of my life.
“They explained the whole process to me, and gave me the space and autonomy over my body that my attackers had taken away, and I will be forever grateful.
“I urge anyone who needs support, no matter when it took place, to come forward – you are not alone, and the wonderful teams at SARCs are there to help 24/7”.
The new campaign comes as a survey of more than 4000 people across the country, conducted by Censuswide, found over half (56%) did not seek help from any organisation or service after the incident, while almost half of respondents (46%) cite fear of being believed as the biggest barrier to accessing services.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May said: “I welcome this NHS campaign. It is important for victims of sexual assault and abuse to know that the NHS is there for them.
“Sadly incidents of domestic abuse and sexual assault increased during lockdown and the extra funding for services for victims of abuse and sexual violence is much needed.
“Dedicated domestic violence support for the NHS and integrated care systems is particularly welcome as local medical care plays an important role in identifying abuse and supporting victims”.
The number of people receiving help from NHS SARCs halved after the first lockdown compared to 2019, despite official figures showing that domestic abuse and sexual assault had increased.
The Duchess of Cornwall, who has long championed the work of organisations which support survivors of rape and domestic abuse, will visit a centre this week in support of the campaign and will meet with survivors of sexual assault to hear more about their experiences and the vital support and care they receive via SARCs.
Also backing the new campaign are a number of organisations and charities who work closely with SARCs, including The Survivors Trust, SafeLives, and the Male Survivors Partnership.
Liz Thompson, Director of External Relations at SafeLives, said: “At SafeLives we know how important a whole-health approach to ending domestic abuse is. Four out of five victims of domestic abuse don’t go to the police, and health professionals are ideally placed to identify victims, especially those who are not in contact with other agencies.
“We also welcome the announcement of new clinical leads in NHS England for domestic violence and sexual assault”.
Tania Woodgate, Chief Executive Officer of the Male Survivors Partnership, said: “It is so important for men, who are least likely to seek help and support, to be aware that SARCs are available to everyone regardless of gender.
“We support any campaign that helps to ensure male survivors are treated appropriately, sensitively and fairly within their centres”.
The Survivors Trust said: “Following sexual violence or abuse many victims and survivors are unaware of the specialist support available to them and how to access it.
“We welcome the commitment shown from the NHS to raise awareness of the specialist services provided by Sexual Assault Referral Centres, and hope this campaign will help the public better understand what services a SARC can provide to ensure more victims and survivors know where they can access specialist support such as advocacy, forensic healthcare, information and counselling”.
Sexual assault referral centres provide a safe space and dedicated care for people who have been raped, sexually assaulted, or abused. If you have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused and don’t know where to turn, search “sexual assault referral centres” to find out more or visit www.nhs.uk/SARCs to find your nearest service.
More information on what help is available after rape, sexual assault or abuse can be found at www.nhs.uk/SARCs.
You can find your nearest SARC via the directory.
Censuswide carried out a survey with over 4000 people between 4 January and 18th January 2022 – results can be found on tier website.
Campaign marketing and social media assets can be found here <1>
More information on how to recognise the signs of domestic violence and abuse, and where to get help, can be found on the NHS.UK website.
Further information on sexual assault referral centres:
People can contact a SARC to make an appointment or ask someone else to do this on their behalf.
SARCs offer a range of services including crisis care, medical examinations, emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections. They can also arrange access to an independent sexual assault advisor, as well as referrals to mental health support and voluntary sector sexual violence support services.
Sexual assault referral centres also have forensic medical examination facilities, should you wish to report the assault to the police or are considering doing this, once you’ve had time to consider your options.
If you refer yourself to a SARC and are considering reporting the assault to the police, the centre can arrange for you to have an informal talk with a specially trained police officer, who can explain what is involved and next steps.
Specially trained advisers are also available to you through the criminal justice system if you decide to report the assault to the police. This includes supporting you through the trial, should the case go to court.
If you have been sexually assaulted or abused, whether as an adult or a young person, it is important to remember that it wasn’t your fault. Sexual violence is a crime, no matter who commits it or where it happens. Don’t be afraid to get help.