Domestic Violence and COVID-19: information and resources for GPs

11 May 2020

Research shows that coercive control and abuse increases in times of crisis. This is particularly concerning given the already high prevalence of women experiencing domestic violence. In Australia, one women per week is killed by her partner or ex-partner.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, an increase of domestic violence has been reported nationally. Women’s Safety NSW have seen an approximate 50% rise in the numbers of women seeking help from their specialist domestic violence services across the state. They report increases in severity, in complexity, and in first time reports.

In addition to common domestic violence tactics (such as verbal, psychological, financial, physical and sexual abuse and harassment and stalking), some ways abusers are using the pandemic to increase coercive control are by preventing women from accessing soap, disinfectant and hand sanitiser, or threatening to expose them (or their children) to the virus, while others are using restrictions on movement to prevent their partners from accessing services and medical treatment. Many women now have vastly fewer opportunities to connect with supports and services because of their partners being at home. Added to this, the huge number of job losses, financial hardship and increase in alcohol purchasing, there is every reason to be concerned about the potential impact on women and children.

General practitioners are the major professional group to whom women experiencing domestic violence turn, with 1 in 5 women making their first disclosure of domestic violence to their general practitioner. Working with women experiencing domestic violence can be difficult, particularly in these challenging times. General practitioners play a key role in identifying, intervening and referring patients to support services.

It is important to know the effects family violence might have on your patients including specific presentations. Patients may not necessarily present with obvious physical injuries, more commonly they may present with a broad range of symptoms or other indicators such as anxiety, panic attacks, stress and/or depression, drug dependency, chronic headaches, vague aches and pains. Other indicators may include evasiveness, anxious in the presence of partner or unconvincing explanation of the injuries.

Starting a conversation about domestic violence requires rapport between the general practitioner and the woman. It is important for general practitioners to ensure when asking about domestic violence that the woman is alone. Enquiries should be made in a sensitive manner and provide a non-judgmental response that takes into account the complexity of women’s needs. General practitioners should respond by supporting victims, knowledge of the physical and emotional consequences of violence, understanding communication skills that include appropriate and inappropriate responses and awareness of local support networks and services for referral.

Information and Resources for General Practitioners:

  • Domestic Violence Health Pathway (includes local referral points).
  • HealthEd Podcast: DV during lockdown  https://www.healthed.com.au/podcasts/going-viral-episode-33/
  • RACGP Red Book: guidelines for asking and responding to intimate partner violence.
  • RACGP On-line learning module: Intimate Partner Violence ( Cat 1 /40 points) 
  • Safer Families : Research and collaboration to transform the heath sector response to domestic and family violence. Includes a Resource Hub with specific resources regarding COVID- 19, training resources and Safer Families toolkits.
  • Domestic Violence Line (1800 65 64 63): Women’s phone crisis counselling and referral service.
  • 1800 Respect (1800 737 732): Information and support for people impacted by sexual assault, domestic and family violence and abuse.