Domestic abuse, mental health and children and young people
– October 2020
One in five young people in the UK will have experienced domestic abuse by the time they reach 18. Domestic abuse can have a severe impact on children and young people’s mental wellbeing across all age groups—research shows that this can include experiencing anxiety, depression, or a lowered sense of self-worth. Domestic abuse is recognised as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which have been found to have a lifelong impact on mental health. Experience of trauma during this important time of development can continue to influence coping strategies and behaviour in young people. Young people who experience domestic abuse can display higher rates of behavioural challenges than their peers, and engage in more risk-taking behaviour, making them vulnerable to other forms of abuse, exploitation and harm. Adversity in childhood, such as domestic abuse, can therefore impact on opportunities for health and development and risks for future wellbeing. Domestic abuse and sexual abuse are recognised as factors that make a child or young person more vulnerable to experiencing difficulties with their mental health across their lifetime.
Although many children and young people show remarkable resilience, it remains a fact that those who experience trauma like domestic abuse are at higher risk of experiencing negative outcomes at all stages of their lives. Poorer outcomes are not inevitable, however, if children and young people have access to high-quality support when required. Early intervention is therefore essential to mitigate some of the long-term impacts of domestic abuse for children and young people. It is important that, going forward, we recognise the increased risk children and young people affected by domestic abuse have and continue to face during the pandemic in relation to mental health and wellbeing.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen that the pandemic and the restrictions put in place have increased the risk of trauma and re-traumatisation for children and young people affected by domestic abuse. There is growing evidence that measures to control the pandemic, such as social distancing, stay at home guidance and school closures have had an adverse effect on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. We also know that this impact may be heightened for people coping with the long-term impacts of domestic abuse. The pandemic and restrictions have compounded the impact of the trauma of domestic abuse at a time when other challenges have been exacerbated, such as poverty and socio-economic inequality, which themselves can all have an effect on mental health and wellbeing.
Cedar coordinators have adapted how they support children and their mothers during the pandemic. Coordinators have reported that children and their mothers have benefited from this adapted support during a time where they are at greater risk of experiencing re-traumatisation and poor mental health. Many children and their mothers have found the uncertainty of the pandemic stressful because their usual support systems have been limited, and for some families there have been additional challenges related to child contact with perpetrators. Additionally, some children and their mothers have reported experiencing mental health challenges such as prolonged anxiety and stress due to living with local lockdown measures, and the risk of further national lockdown measures. We know that in general, young people are facing uncertainty around the future, particularly the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on their education and future prospects. The impact of this uncertainty may also be exacerbated for those recovering from experiences of trauma.
Children and young people’s wellbeing must be a priority for the COVID-19 recovery, renewal and transformation agenda. Support and recovery from domestic abuse requires collaborative, trauma-informed systems and high-quality, sustainable specialist services. This means that children and young people should be able to access support at the right time, and that this support helps them feel safer and improves their wellbeing. Having access to this kind of support can give children and young people the confidence to realise their potential, which is prioritised in Scotland’s national outcomes for children’s rights and wellbeing. Evidence shows that investing in prevention and early intervention support will also help manage demand on services and reduce long-term costs. Consultation with specialist services highlights that they anticipate increased demand for support across a wide range of issues, including domestic abuse and mental health.
A preventative and early intervention approach to mental health is prioritised in Scotland’s Mental Health Strategy (2017-2027), and in Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health Task Force (2019) recommendations. Improving mental wellbeing and helping children to grow up healthy are also included in Scotland’s Public Health Priorities. Since COVID-19, there has been recognition of the increased risk of domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women during the pandemic, and addressing this impact is prioritised in Scotland’s COVID-19 mental health transition and recovery plan. This plan recognises that mental health support will be vital in Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, and that children need to be supported to recover from the impact of this period on their wellbeing. Now more than ever, it is vital to ensure that the inequalities and negative impacts on outcomes exacerbated during the pandemic do not become further entrenched and compounded across generations. This is why a collaborative and joined-up approach is essential – everyone has a role to play in tackling and eradicating domestic abuse.
 Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy to eradicate violence against women, Scottish Government and COSLA (2018)
 Children, young people and domestic abuse: impact, support and recovery, Improvement Service and Scottish Women’s Aid (2019)
 COVID-19: Mental health – Transition and Recovery plan, Scottish Government (2020)
 COVID-19: Children, young people and families – Evidence and intelligence report, Scottish Government (2020)
 Children and Young People’s Mental Health during Covid-19: Policy Statement, Mental Health Foundation Scotland (2020)
 Ending childhood adversity: A public health approach, Public Health Scotland, (2020)