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Friends and relatives of survivors of domestic violence - what support do they need?

Early Career Fellowship

Dr Alison Gregory

Alison Gregory domestic violence support projects hands image

24 January 2019

One in four UK women experience domestic violence at some time in their lives, and most seek informal support from the people around them, even if they don’t choose to access professional help. But what are the support needs of friends and family members trying to help?

This was the question asked by Dr Alison Gregory who, helped by an Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Early Career Fellowship award, is researching how best to support this important, but neglected group.

The impact of domestic violence on survivors can be devastating, particularly for their physical and mental health. But in her PhD research Dr Gregory found this was not just limited to survivors. It rippled outwards to people in the survivor’s social support network - such as family members, friends, current non-abusive partners and work colleagues – whose wellbeing, confidence and safety could also be severely undermined.

Dr Gregory’s interviews with informal supporters showed they often felt ill equipped to help, and struggled to define their role within a complex and challenging situation. Yet hardly any had considered seeking support for themselves, or were aware that domestic violence helplines were there for them too. Furthermore, she found a surprising lack of research on the needs and experiences of this group, despite evidence of their potentially life changing, and even life saving, role.

The EBI Fellowship allowed her to explore this further by analysing information from previous interviews to see what support people needed and their experience of professional services, as a first step towards developing targeted support interventions.

Based at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, Dr Gregory was mentored by Professor Gene Feder, a foremost international expert in domestic violence and health, and Dr Emma Williamson, a specialist in gender-based violence research.

Her findings showed supporters wanted to talk to someone impartial for advice, acknowledgement, reassurance and emotional support.  They felt they had been left ‘to deal with it’ alone, despite the involvement of many professionals, and wanted better coordination between services and access to support designed for them. Dr Gregory was also able to use her research findings to: 

  • Produce a booklet for friends and family of domestic violence survivors for a Bristol City Council and Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner public health campaign, which has also been used in four other areas of the UK.
  • Provide a 90-minute interactive training session for the Women’s Aid team who run the National Domestic Violence helpline.
  • Explore with PolicyBristol how to influence national policy and guidance.

The EBI fellowship allowed her to strengthen her publication record with articles in BMJ Open, the Journal of Gender-Based Violence, and Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.  She also forged further partnerships with survivor support organisations, and established new and extended UK and international research collaborations. In May 2020 Dr Gregory will visit the University of Melbourne on a short term placement funded by the International Visiting Scholar Program (IVSP) run by Safer Families and she wil be a visiting academic at the Federal University of São Carlos in Brazil in August 2020.

Dr Gregory said: "The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Fellowship was instrumental in winning me further research funding, including a research fellowship (traumatised and vulnerable populations) from Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group.

"I am now delighted to have been awarded an AXA Research Fund Fellowship for a two-year project starting in August 2019 to develop and pilot an intervention specifically tailored for informal supporters of people who have experienced domestic violence’’.

Further information

DVA Friends and Family Booklet 

Follow Bristol Domestic Violence Research on Twitter 

Contact people at the Centre for Academic Primary Care at Bristol

Read the AXA funding news story to find out more about the project

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