A briefing for mental health professionals : why asking about abuse matters to service users (REVA project, briefing 3)

Scott, Sara, McNaughton, Nicholls C., McManus, Sally, Brown, Ashley, Harvey, Shannon, Kelly, Liz and Lovett, Jo (2015) A briefing for mental health professionals : why asking about abuse matters to service users (REVA project, briefing 3). Project Report. NatCen, London.


There are high prevalence rates of violent and abusive experience in both the childhoods and adult lives of mental health service users. Histories of childhood sexual and physical abuse amongst women service users are particularly well documented. Although many of the samples in studies are small, figures of over 50% are not unusual (Palmer et al, 1992; Bryer et al, 1987; Walker and James, 1992; Wurr and Partridge, 1996). In secure settings this figure is even higher (Bland et al, 1999). Studies of severe domestic violence among psychiatric in-patients report lifetime prevalence ranging from 30% to 60% (Golding, 1999; Howard et al. 2010). The REVA study, on which this briefing is based, has also found that people who suffer violence and abuse are much more likely to have a mental disorder, self-harm or attempt suicide than those with little or no experience of this kind (Scott et al, 2013). Given the prevalence of experiences of abuse among users of adult mental health services it is vitally important that these experiences are identified to ensure appropriate diagnosis, support and referral. Since 2003 it has been Department of Health policy that all adult service users should be asked about experiences of violence and abuse in mental health assessments.

Yet actually disclosing experiences of violence and abuse can be very difficult. Survivors can feel a deep sense of shame and responsibility for the abuse they have experienced – feelings that are often strategically encouraged by their abusers (Clark and Quadara, 2010). These feelings can be compounded by unhelpful responses from professionals when they try to disclose (Imkaanetal, 2014). And survivors consistently say that disclosure has to be ‘at the right time for them’, which may be immediately or many years after the abuse (McNaughton Nicholls, 2012).

In this briefing paper we present findings from research funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme on responding effectively to the needs of survivors of violence and abuse: the REVA study. The study included specifically asking survivors of violence and abuse about their views on routine enquiry, their experiences of disclosing abuse and their recommendations for how staff should ask clients about abuse.

REVA_Brief-3_Guidance-for-mental-health-professionals_FINAL_071915.pdf - Published Version

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