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5 things I learnt from working with the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network

Violence and abuse are common in society and can happen in almost any setting, to children, adults and older people. The Violence Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN) is a group of researchers, charities and other organisations which aims to reduce mental health problems that are connected to the experience of violence and abuse. McPin is part of the network and have been involved in identifying research priorities for the network to focus on, alongside survivors of violence and abuse. During this process, I learnt a lot in quite a short space of time. Here are five examples. 

1.This topic generates lots of interest because it’s such a huge problem

Mental ill health is seldom an isolated thing. So often it is due to stuff that has happened to people in the past. A lot of these issues don’t get discussed when you’re working with the general concept of ‘mental health’. I was surprised how willing people were to talk about these issues – perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. We ran two workshops for the research prioritisation exercise. These generated so much interest from people around the country that we could have easily done five. With more advertising and a proper campaign on the topic we probably could have done fifty. I would encourage researchers working in this area to involve survivors in every way they can (if they’re not already doing so), because this is the only way they’ll get the right answers. 

2. There is a strong grassroots survivor movement in this sector

We worked with people affiliated with Survivors Voices and found their charter for involvement really useful. We also worked with other survivors to ensure that all our communications were sensitive and not exploitative. It makes me wonder how much more knowledge could be generated if these organisations were involved in all aspects of research and service development in this area. I really don’t understand why this is not already happening as it seems blatantly obvious to me. 

3. “Abuse is not experienced in categories”

This was an important message that a project colleague (and survivor) kept saying to us. The very act of categorising something as ‘emotional abuse’ or ‘sexual abuse’ or ‘domestic abuse’ serves to lessen the voices of survivors and make them doubt whether their experiences count or not. People might be reluctant to recognise what is happening to them as abuse, thinking that what they are going through doesn’t meet the ‘threshold’. As my colleague emphasised, it’s much more helpful to think about the mechanisms and patterns behind abuse (coercion, isolation, domination, etc). It is not helpful that much of the infrastructure, such as criminal justice and mental health systems, categorises abuse.

4. The ‘system’ is set up in a bad way

In our workshops, I wasn’t surprised to hear people’s experiences of re-traumatisation and abuse within ‘the system’ (e.g., mental health services, criminal justice, family courts). However, I was surprised by how dominant this theme was. It seemed to be one of the areas we talked about most. In contrast, people’s experiences of survivor-led support networks were positive. Initiatives like the Freedom Programme which focus on the experience of abuse were positively received as well. Again, it does make you wonder why these relatively simple support options are not better known.

5. Any work in this area takes a lot of careful planning

I’ve worked in/around the mental health field for 15 years so I’m used to working sensitively. But doing work specifically about violence and abuse requires an added level of sensitivity. That’s why I was so grateful for the help of survivors and survivor organisations throughout. They were only too ready to tear down my ideas and force me to think again.

One of the most helpful adages I learnt is that involvement needs to look like the opposite of abuse for survivors to engage. This could mean clarifying the purpose at the beginning, explaining how the findings will be used, allowing people to say as much or as little as they feel comfortable. This might seem like ‘good practice’ but it takes on new meaning when you consider the tactics abuse perpetrators can use (keeping true purposes hidden, forcing people to do things against their will). To do this, you must understand what the broad concept of abuse looks like. I kept this in mind throughout and would like to think we got the balance right.


Download the report about the research priorities and find out more about McPin’s involvement in the network here.

“Be willing to envision systems that are based on radically new ways of doing things” – Read a blog by Concetta Perôt, a peer researcher on the project here.