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Emma Macdonald

I had only met her a few times socially.

But I could immediately tell something was wrong by her demeanor. And then I saw bruises…

What happens when someone you know, but don’t know well, exhibits signs that they may be suffering from abuse? According to the CEO of the ACT’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service Mirjana Wilson, there are steps we can all take to reach out to someone we believe may be at risk.

And the time for turning a blind eye has passed.

Mirjana suggests in the first instance, a very gentle and non-judgemental question “Are you alright? I am a little concerned about you,” may be all is needed for someone to feel supported.

Whether she wants to take the conversation any further is completely her decision.

“But it is possible to invite them into a conversation without using language that is explicit or judgemental,” Mirjana says. “You can simply ask the question, and the conversation may move on if she doesn’t acknowledge there is any problem. You may even preface the discussion by saying, ‘Look I may have this completely wrong, but I am worried about you’.”

“What we often hear women say is ‘I just wish someone had asked me whether I was OK, because I may have responded’.”

They also may not respond – until, perhaps, the next time someone asks.

As a community, Mirjana says we have a responsibility to address domestic violence.

“I think in the past it was often a case of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and people had reservations about raising the issue in case a victim was offended or felt ashamed.”

But in recent years the explosion of community awareness, concern and activation around the issue of domestic abuse has broken down traditional barriers and helped remove some of the stigma associated with an intensely private issue.

“We now know how widespread the problem is. And we also are far more aware that it is simply not acceptable that anyone suffer mental or physical abuse.”

That is not to say, however, that anyone who is not acting themselves or who may be exhibiting some form of injury is living in an abusive relationship – and that’s where the judgement call can be tricky.

“We don’t need to all become vigilantes about it. Certainly, it is a balancing act.”

It is also difficult to go to a third party, such as the police, if there is no evidence of abuse.

“Making a call to the police often is not the best route to travel simply because they may not be able to assist if all you are going on is a hunch.”

Which is why a gentle and sensitive enquiry made directly to a suspected victim may make the difference.

Mirjana noted that people were often reluctant to inquire about what they strongly suspected was an abusive relationship because they did not know how to help even if their suspicions were confirmed.

“I’d say please don’t be afraid to offer assistance to someone you were concerned about, because in the first instance you are just offering to help and you don’t have to actually solve any of the very complex issues that may be at play.”

Helping may range from asking them if there was someone they felt comfortable talking to, to offering to make a phone call to the Domestic Violence Crisis Service to get advice about next steps. All help needs to be offered without escalating any potential risk of harm.

Last year the DVCS had 55,000 contacts from across Canberra. It offers everything from crisis counseling to 24-hour emergency accommodation, crisis intervention, court advocacy, support groups and case management for young people and women staying at home.

“No woman has to do it alone. But she does have to make the decision to take that first step.”

Once she has disclosed that abuse is happening, there are some useful ways to communicate and offer support, found here: dvcs.org.au.

So for those of us who are standing on the outside and looking in to see something amiss, Mirjana urges us not to walk away.

“It might not be an easy conversation to strike up, but I always think it is better to reach out.”

If you have experienced or are at risk of domestic and/or family violence, please contact the Domestic Violence Crisis Service on 02 6280 0900.

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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