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Some time ago I wrote an article about estrangement for The Guardian newspaper. As a result I received numerous responses from people that had walked away from their emotionally abusive homes, like me. Many started their explanations with the phrase: ‘I know it was only words, but…’ Now, I don’t wish to undermine victims of physical or sexual abuse that have bravely started to speak out – both are terrible burdens to carry, and absolutely deserve our concern. Yet, is it correct that these people who have endured childhoods of humiliation and manipulation have become coerced into feeling their abuse is not as valid?

The latest statistics, released in 2012, show that 28% of UK children with a child protection plan were labeled by the term emotional abuse. Although these figures place emotional abuse as the second most frequent label for a child protection plan, they have long been said to represent ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Some researchers have gone as far as to suggest the system itself is designed to filter out the scores of children suffering in emotionally abusive homes. This may well start with the absence of mandatory reporting laws in the UK – guidelines stress only a duty for professionals to report a child at risk of significant harm, and no legal obligation. This lack of accountability surely can lead to flawed interpretations of what permissible harm entails as well as the possibility for a number of vested interests to come into play in any given case. Furthermore, the evidence and incident driven social services may find it hard to accelerate emotional abuse cases. Of the 605,000 children that reached the referral stage in England, around 2% were given a child protection plan for needs relating to emotional abuse.

But what’s the big deal? A few words are hardly likely to be dangerous. And I’ll admit that a word can’t break a leg, or an arm, or tie someone up. But words can damage a mind. Even a cursory glance at the research suggests that emotional harm leaves a trail of mental destruction behind it, and the mind is just as necessary for our function in society as a leg or an arm may be. Words used incorrectly and consistently by an adult in a position of trust have lead victims into much greater chances of suicide, self-harm and mental health difficulties. And, psychologists have stressed that if intervention is not made in the crucial early adult years, and the correct therapy not given, there is a much greater chance of survivors turning to self-medication and becoming trapped in substance dependency. The consequences are brutal, psychologically.

It is these early adult years that we must focus on. As well the possibility of these victims going unnoticed as children, they also go on to be unsupported when leaving the home. Guidelines set out by local councils seem set to hinder young people, suffering from emotional abuse, from leaving homes in a supported way. The Foyer Federation, a not-for-profit organisation offering housing to disadvantaged young people, explained that it does regard those leaving emotionally abusive homes as a priority. However, the organisation confirmed that if statutory referral is needed to use their services, young people often find difficulties in persuading authorities that they are either a child in need or statutory homeless. So where do they turn when the authorities tell them a dangerous home is an adequate home? What attitude does this breed about the validity of their suffering?

The word ‘psychologically’ may be the root of why we refuse to take these victims seriously, and why, our services don’t validate their needs. The way our services are structured makes it appear as if we’re working on the war-time mantra of, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. In a sense, our actions are telling victims that they are unworthy of our respect, because they have done the unthinkable: let words ‘hurt’ them. Yet this seems incongruous in a society that also absolutely validates the word as a weapon:  we empathise with those that object to racial slurs, and sexist jibes. We live in a society where we (rightly) sack TV presenters for using the insulting phrases and jokes. And so why not support children who are told, day after day, that they are worthless or unwanted? We need to follow our own rule, and see victims who tell us they need to get away from their abusers as vulnerable people and not unworthy individuals trying to rob the state purse. Of course the government would be quick to remind us that this would require investment in times of economic uncertainty. But this is crucial to our societal wellbeing – and could well prevent spending in the long term.

Peter Saunders from The National Association for People Abused in Childhood states: ‘Abuse of this kind costs the nation unbelievable amounts each year in terms of rescue, and will continue to do so if the cause of abuse is not tackled.’ He goes on to add: ‘It’s in the best interests of society to have healthy citizens, both in body and mind. If the government were to give those survivors recognition, in terms of assured help with their recovery, then the chances of this expenditure dropping in future years would be greatly increased.’ Much like the body, the mind can heal, but only if society stands up and acknowledges the wrongdoings of those that use words to their advantage – and furthermore if society validates the victim’s needs to be estranged from the families that are bringing them harm.

Jimmy Saville, Operation Yew Tree and ‘Giving Victims a Voice’ have all gifted society with a window in which to truly change our deflective attitudes to abuse victims of all kinds. It is yet to be seen if the government will stand up and lead this revolution, and support those that are trying to bring change about. But we must not forget that emotional and psychological abuses are the most dangerous parts of this picture. It is high time that reporting abuse, when they say it, was mandatory for professionals. And for young adults who tell us they need to walk away from emotionally abusive situations, to be unconditionally assisted.

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