ACT News

Domestic violence leaving children traumatised with mental health problems

Children traumatised by domestic violence are being burdened with anxiety, sleep disorders, behavioural issues and are more likely to be exposed to mental illness.  

With waiting lists for some children's mental health services growing to more than three months, counsellors and academics are calling for greater awareness and support programs in primary schools.

Amanda Harris, director of the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma Loss & Grief Network, said the breadth of challenges faced by children had not been widely recognised.

"We know that the impact of witnessing domestic violence on young kids can be just as serious as the impact of actual physical violence," she said.

"In those first few years they can be smothered with stress and that can impact on their development leading to emotional, behavioural or even learning difficulties."

Angie Piubello, who has worked as the child support worker for Beryl Women Inc shelter for six years, said children at her refuge reacted differently to domestic violence depending on their age.

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"For older children there will be issues of having to cut relationships and leaving whatever connections they may have made along with managing their safety," she said.

"We've got a younger person who has had to change her name and that has meant a whole lot of things for her as a young person."

Fiona MacGregor, who oversees YWCA Canberra mental health services, said many young children did not feel safe in their homes after witnessing domestic violence.

"Some of the children we see have been traumatised because of domestic violence and they are in need of therapeutic help," she said.

"Quite often when a mother becomes a victim of domestic violence her capacity – through no fault of her own – to protect her children can be diminished."

Ms Harris said her network was working with four ACT primary schools to educate senior staff on the influence of domestic violence with plans to expand the program later this year.

"Kids who are exposed to trauma are more likely to have academic failures and more likely to be suspended due to behavioural issues," she said.

"If they go to school where they have good relationships with teachers and staff in a safe environment then that can help mitigate the impact of domestic violence.

"We know that some kids are resilient and will get through lots of difficulties so we can't say that every child will have lifelong problems."

Ms Piubello said the education system had improved in recent years although there was still a lack of understanding of the impact of domestic violence. 

Children exposed to domestic violence often face other challenges such as homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

"We can also see that kids who have lived in an environment with domestic violence may be more likely to be diagnosed with ADHA or have difficulty regulating their own emotions," Ms Harris said. 

Ms Piubello said the biggest challenge her organisation faced was getting enough funding to provide for children who have left their homes due to domestic violence.

"You find yourself in a position where you feel like you are always struggling to meet the needs of children, but you do the best you can," she said.

"We have one support worker for each woman in the refuge but we have 40-50 children and only one worker focused on meeting their needs.

Ms MacGregor said the challenges of domestic violence could be exacerbated "a significant gap" in early intervention services for those aged less than 12.

 "We have had waiting lists that have gone up to six months because we don't want to limit people to say six sessions only as sometimes they have significant issues," she said.

"At the moment we have a waiting list of around three months."

She said the ACT government were sufficiently funding mental health services for those with moderate or severe symptoms but more could be done in the early stages.

"We believe that it is far better to intervene early and to prevent mental illness from occurring and that's where we see the real need," she said.

"This is a growing area of concern as many children do manifest with anxiety for many reasons," she said. 

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