Professionals within social work have known for a long time that abuse isn’t always physical. It can involve manipulation of emotions, mental health and financial extortion to name but a few areas; but the clear point is that you don’t have to lay a finger on someone to still be guilty of abuse. In recent years, the courts are beginning to recognise this fact, with Scotland becoming the latest nation to introduce a new way of understanding domestic abuse. New legislation which has been described as “the world´s gold standard” by Scottish Women’s Aid now officially recognises psychological domestic abuse as a crime. Coming into force on 1st April 2019, The Domestic Abuse Act “makes absolutely clear that coercive and controlling behaviour is domestic abuse and a crime” according to Scottish Government’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.
"Mental/emotional abuse includes:
Threats (including threats of violence); criticism and name calling; controlling what you do, where you go and who you speak to; threatening your children, isolating you from friends and family; accusing you of being unfaithful; threatening to 'out' your sexual orientation to family, friends or work or to reveal your HIV/AIDS status." - Police Scotland.
- Behaviour that is violent, threatening or intimidating
- Behaviour whose purpose is one of the following:
- making a partner dependent or subordinate
- isolating a partner from friends, relatives or other sources of support
- controlling, regulating or monitoring a partner’s day-to-day activities
- depriving a partner of, or restricting, freedom of action
- frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing a partner.
To say this is a landmark moment for victims of psychological domestic abuse almost feels like an understatement. For so long domestic abuse perpetrators have been able to avoid convictions despite the damage caused, simply because the abuse was not physical violence. While England and Wales have already had recognition of psychological domestic abuse within their courts since the Serious Crime Bill of 2015, Scotland are taking it one step further with how they evaluate the sentence if children are involved.
Practitioners who work with children and young people should note that (for the first time) the severity of the offence is heightened if any of the behaviour is directed at a child or witnessed by them. So now child victims of non-physical domestic abuse have more legal protection than ever before, and Scotland are sending a signal to other international courts that they are standing up to defend the psychological abuse of a child.
This new legislation, which was passed in 2015, is also important as it is legally providing equal standing for mental health issues as physical. It’s the same type of crime to negatively impact the mental health of an individual as it is to physically harm them. Hence, it’s showing a “de jure” (of law) recognition of the value of protecting mental health; which may translate into a “de facto” (of fact) breakdown of the stigma surrounding non-physical ailments. (Yes, we’re bringing Latin terminology to this.)
An interesting consideration for the recognition of psychological domestic abuse is the fact that it could provide male victims of abuse with a more secure platform. Due to physical differences between the genders, male victims of domestic abuse are slightly less likely to experience physical violence than women, however psychological abuse is a different matter. Almost half (48.8 percent) of all men have dealt with some sort of psychological aggression by an intimate partner, therefore this new law in Scotland allows for them to feel supported in a more equal manner.
Emotional tactics such as name calling, threats and intimidation are harder to prove, alongside withholding money, restricting access to the internet and isolating victims from their family and friends. Yet for perpetrators, the result is the same – being able to assert unrestricted control over a partner or ex-partner’s life, with or without using physical violence.
Psychological domestic abuse is less commonly recognised, despite its prevalence across the UK, and so a lot of the time, victims won’t know that they are actually being subjected to a form of domestic abuse. (“It’s just what they’re like…”) The Scottish government have funded a public information film that is setting out to educate people more about what psychological abuse actually looks like, so that more victims know they don’t have to put up with this treatment. They have also provided Police Scotland with £825,000 for more than 14,000 police officers and support staff to receive training on the new legislation and what it entails. Therefore, they are not just enacting a law and hoping it will resolve things. The Scottish government are understanding that protecting victims of domestic abuse requires a structure to be in place, involving local services like the police as well as ensuring abusers are subject to the law.
While you're here...
Changing the laws to support domestic abuse victims more is a great step forward, but the psychological impact of any form of abuse can make it hard to open up and process your experiences. Victims require a great deal of personalised care and support in order to move past the ordeal, whether it was physical violence or psychological manipulation; so practitioners need to be aware of the impact. If you’re working with someone who has experienced domestic abuse, then make sure you look up different resources and share techniques which you find offer suitable support. That way, social work can develop into a more supportive system overall.