To mark our #ThroughOUReyes campaign and raise awareness of the link between brain injury and domestic abuse, SafeLives’ Head of Public Affairs, Jess Asato, has written the following blog piece on the importance of recognising the possible causes and symptoms of brain injury.

Each year, more than 2.3 million people aged 16-74 experience some form of domestic abuse in England and Wales. More than one in four women in England and Wales have experienced domestic abuse at some point since the age of 16.

According to SafeLives’ Insights data from frontline domestic abuse services, three quarters of service users supported in 2019/20 had experienced physical abuse, with over half having experienced high levels of such abuse. Many of these survivors will have experienced being hit on the head, face, or neck, or have experienced choking and non-fatal strangulation – now, a standalone offence in the new Domestic Abuse Act.

Previous Disabilities Trust research with female offenders showed that those who had sustained brain injury through domestic abuse had higher rates of self-harm (61%), mental health problems (41%) and committed violent crimes (46%) than those who had sustained their injury in other

contexts (e. g. road traffic accidents, etc). These stark figures absolutely merit further investigation and SafeLives has engaged in the last few years with The Disabilities Trust to create greater understanding of the impact of brain injury on survivors of domestic abuse.

The Disabilities Trust’s latest research in partnership with SafeLives highlights how often survivors disclose experiences which can cause brain injury and how often they report symptoms, including headaches, difficulty concentrating, memory loss and ringing in their ears, which may be the result of an acquired brain injury (ABI). Without understanding the impact of an ABI on survivors, frontline practitioners and multi-agency professionals may be missing opportunities to support them effectively, and in some cases interpreting lack of engagement or poor time management, for example, as factors unrelated to the physical abuse they have experienced.

The domestic abuse frontline practitioners surveyed by The Disabilities Trust report feeling like they don’t have the knowledge to recognise symptoms of brain injury and aren’t aware of key screening tools which could help to identify ABI. Survivors themselves may not know that they have sustained more lasting damage than what was visible to them at the time, and therefore can’t tell the domestic abuse services what they need, or access more specialised care pathways. As such, survivors are missing out on the support that is best suited to their needs, and on a vital piece of information that can help them recover in the aftermath of abuse. It’s striking to see how many of the survivors quoted in the report were obviously grateful to finally understand their own symptoms and experiences once they had a brain injury diagnosis.

We were pleased to support The Disabilities Trust’s campaign in the Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure the Statutory Guidance accompanying the new Act recognises the impact of ABI’s on survivors of domestic abuse. Throughout our work at SafeLives, we make it clear how vital it is that professionals working with survivors of domestic abuse really see the whole person in front of them. We know that domestic abuse practitioners are passionate about supporting victims, and frequently go above and beyond to ensure survivors get the support they need. That’s why The Disabilities Trust’s work to increase awareness of the causes and symptoms of ABI, supported by specialist training, a roll-out of screening tools, and clearly identified care pathways, can help ensure frontline services provide a truly whole-person response. We look forward to continuing working with the Disabilities Trust, alongside survivors and colleagues in the domestic abuse sector to better understand the emerging link between brain injury and domestic abuse.”

-Jess Asato is the Head of Public Affairs and Policy at SafeLives a UK-wide domestic abuse charity