Women living in the South West who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual assault are being urged to contact the NHS for support, as the number of people seeking help halved during the first lockdown.
Following recent high-profile events highlighting sexual abuse and the increase in women sharing their experiences of assault and harassment, both in the home and in public, the NHS is calling for anyone who needs assistance to come forward.
Senior NHS leaders have also reminded staff to be aware that patients may have experienced abuse or assault and what support is available.
The move comes after the number of people receiving help from NHS Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) nationally halved after the first lockdown compared with the previous year, despite official figures showing that domestic abuse and sexual assault increased. In the South West, SARCS have had fewer requests for medicals during lockdown, but have continued to offer a significant amount of telephone support and advice.
SARCs offer people who have been raped or assaulted a range of help including medical examinations, emergency medication, emotional support and referral to other services.
The services are run by specially trained doctors, nurses and support workers who can provide the appropriate care.
Patients can contact the SARC themselves and can decide whether or not to tell the police.
SARCs and other sexual violence support services are available across the South West from Gloucestershire all the way to Truro.
A service user for The Bridge SARC in Bristol said:
“I was supported from the very first contact, and overall, could not have gone through the past few years without this wonderful service. A major asset to our NHS service, and one that I hope is able to reach as many individuals as need it.”
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s National Director for Mental Health, said: “Throughout this pandemic, NHS services have been there for those who need them, including the victims of violence and sexual abuse.
“If anyone has experienced domestic abuse or sexual assault, it’s important for them to know that a range of services, including mental health support, is available for you.
“Everyone is different and needs different types of support, but please remember that NHS is here to listen to you and support you.”
In July 2019 around 2,500 patients accessed SARC services but that fell to 1,250 in the same month last year.
While these numbers have steadily increased since last July, they are still not at pre-pandemic levels. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated domestic violence, with many victims trapped at home with their abusers. Official ONS figures show that domestic abuse cases have increased 7% in the period from April to June last year compared with the same period in 2019.
The letter to local NHS services stresses that all parts of the health service can support people to seek help for abuse and assault during the pandemic and moving forward.
Kate Davies, the NHS director of sexual assault services commissioning, said: “This is a key moment in time in the fight against domestic abuse and sexual assault, and NHS England is playing its part in helping victims get the help they deserve.
“All organisations have a role to play in preventing violence against women, including the NHS, which is why today, myself and other senior NHS staff have written to all regional directors and leads to remind them of advice to NHS staff and how to spot signs of domestic abuse and the services that are available to help women and prevent further harm.”
In response to the decline in patients coming forward, NHS England has invested £2.5 million in voluntary sector developments to support access to specialist sexual violence services, therapeutic support, such as helplines, online chat support, and online counselling. “
SARCs have remained open and accessible during Covid-19 to offer non-judgemental advice and support for anyone who needs it.
This includes forensic examination services for those who want to pursue a criminal prosecution, but this is optional.
As well as caring for patients, as an employer, the NHS has an obligation to assess any risk and support the health and safety of employees. As part of this, the NHS has published resources to help managers support employees who may be the victims and survivors of domestic abuse and violence.
Anyone can experience domestic abuse, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality or background.
Domestic abuse is not always physical violence, it can also include:
- Coercive control and ‘gaslighting’
- Economic abuse
- Online abuse
- Threats and intimidation
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse