Social distancing and staying home may have been crucial for helping navigate the pandemic, but for many people this has also meant being stuck behind doors with an abusive partner or family member.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has reported that lockdown has led to a significant increase in the number of people reporting incidents of domestic abuse across Europe, while after three weeks of lockdown starting, calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline in the UK were 49% higher than usual.
Domestic abuse is very common and anyone can be a victim of it, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality or background (however it is mostly experienced by women and perpetrated by men) – and escaping from a dangerous situation can be even more difficult when you're isolated from family and friends.
Here, Laura Dix, national community engagement manager at Women's Aid (womensaid.org.uk), talks about the rise in domestic abuse and shares advice for those who are experiencing it or feel at risk…
What is domestic abuse?
"It's defined as a single incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence. It's usually by a partner or ex-partner, but can also be by a family member or carer," says Dix.
"Domestic abuse can include coercive control, which is a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence. It can also include psychological, emotional, sexual, financial or economic abuse, harassment and stalking, and online or digital abuse," Dix adds.
While disagreements are normal in all relationships, Dix is quick to point out that abuse is not a disagreement. "Instead, it is the use of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological violence or threats in order to govern and control another person's thinking, opinions, emotions and behaviour. When abuse is involved, there is no discussion between equals.
"Often, when experiencing coercive control, women may not recognise the signs that they're in an abusive situation, because this tactic erodes their self-confidence and independence."
Why has domestic abuse gone up during lockdown?
"Covid-19 does not cause domestic abuse – only abusers are responsible for their actions," clarifies Dix. "The pandemic does, however, threaten to escalate abuse and close routes to safety for women to escape." For example, support from and access to family and friends, as well as formal networks of support, might be limited.
"A recent Women's Aid survey found that over two-thirds of survivors said domestic abuse is escalating under lockdown and 72% said that their abuser has more control over their life since Covid-19," says Dix.
"We've heard reports of abusers using infection control measures as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour. Alongside this, women also said they felt unable to flee as planned, or unsure of their options for leaving."
Although a government awareness campaign gives the message that you can still leave an abusive space, despite lockdown regulations, Diz says there are major issues facing services about how they can practically support the number of women and children seeking safety right now.
What are some of the psychological effects of living with abusive relationships?
"Our homes are safe places to retreat to," says Professor Margareta James at Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic (harleystreetwellbeingclinic.co.uk). "When people are dealing with domestic violence, the home is no longer safe – it becomes a battleground."
James says this has a long-lasting negative effect on a person's emotional and mental health. "When a person is feeling constantly on-edge, the body produces excess stress hormones and they may feel unable to 'switch off'.
"Over time, this can cause many issues, including sleep disturbances, foggy mind, flashbacks, nightmares, anger outbursts, anxiety and depression," James adds.
"Ongoing domestic abuse is also linked to altered self-image, low self-worth and is likely to be mixed with a sense of shame. This is why key signs of distress include withdrawing from socialising and using alcohol or drugs as an escape from reality."
What should you do if your partner becomes abusive?
Firstly, you are not alone. "If your relationship doesn't feel right, help and support is available," stresses Dix.
Domestic abuse is a serious crime, and if you believe there is an immediate risk of harm, or it is an emergency, it's important to call 999. The police have powers of arrest and can remove the perpetrator from the property to ensure yours and your children's safety.
"Alongside this, you can find expert help both nationally and locally too," says Dix. "A good place to start is the telephone helplines on gov.uk (gov.uk/guidance/domestic-abuse-how-to-get-help)."
Dix says survivors often find accessing online help is safer than making a phone call, where they could be overheard by an abuser. Women can contact Women's Aid for online support; the charity has a 'Live Chat' instant messaging service where they can speak to a trained member of staff.
The Women's Aid website also contains a directory of local services, which provide a range of help from refuges to specialist support for children and young people.
What should I do if a friend tells me they are being abused at home?
"If a survivor reaches out to you, listen to them, try to understand and take care not to blame them," says Dix. "Tell them that no one deserves to be abused, despite what their abuser may have told then."
Dix suggests encouraging them to keep a mobile phone with them at all times if possible, as the police are a key service when in immediate danger.
"The Survivors' Forum (survivorsforum.womensaid.org.uk) is another great resource to pass on as a concerned friend; it's a safe, anonymous space for women over the age of 18 who have been affected by domestic abuse to share their experiences and support one another."