Early last year times were hard for Woman’s Trust, a small charity
providing mental health services to women suffering domestic
“It was desperate,” says Kyria Conner, the project’s co-ordinator,
“I really thought we might be closing our doors.”
A year later, the future for this important and passionate project
is bright indeed since it walked away from the Community
Care awards as winner in the mental health category.
Woman’s Trust (WT) was founded in 1995 to address the dearth of
mental health services for women experiencing domestic violence.
“Domestic violence can happen to any woman. It doesn’t matter where
you are from, how well educated you are, whether or not you work or
how much you earn,” says Conner.
The British Crime Survey revealed that there were 635,000 incidents
of domestic violence in England and Wales last year with women the
victims in 81 per cent of cases.1 And yet the Home
Office estimates that less than 35 per cent of domestic violence
crime is reported to the police.
From 1995-9, WT was run solely with volunteers – women who gave
their time to help others and without whom the service would not be
there today. This changed in 1999 after cash was secured from the
community fund and Kensington & Chelsea Council, enabling WT to
set up a one-year pilot support and self-development group and a
training course for front-line workers.
WT now runs free support groups, self-development workshops and a
counselling service for women who cannot afford to pay for this
kind of support. It provides mental health services to help empower
women affected by domestic violence to advocate for themselves, to
make positive choices in their lives and live free from violence
and abuse. Importantly – and unusually – it works with women who
are still in abusive relationships.
“The most important thing to stress is that we are a client-led
service,” says Conner. “We have always responded to what women told
us they needed.”
Conner, a trained psychotherapist, is the only full-time staff
member, although the project also has a part-time group worker and
trainer. There is also a team of professional counsellors who give
their time to WT free.
There are 30 counselling sessions available each week, and a
support and self-development group runs every week for two hours.
Women arrive at the service through a variety of routes – WT has
links with all the other providers of services for people who
suffer domestic violence, including Women’s Aid and Refuge, and has
its own website.
“We offer an initial session and at this stage we will run through
what’s on offer and women will pick which services they want to
use,” Conner says. If it is felt WT is not suitable the project
will offer a referral to other services.
Women who want counselling are offered 18 free sessions over four
months, and they are given a contract so they know what to expect.
The sessions are run in several venues – for example, health
centres or GP surgeries that women can use without question.
Conner says: “Often women have asked for help in the past and they
have been seen to be somehow at fault and made to feel responsible
for what has happened. You need to be aware if you are going to
start asking questions about what happened in their past, that this
sort of analytical approach is very difficult and often not very
Counselling is not right for everyone. “There are issues around
power and control, and sometimes the last thing a women who is very
disempowered and living in a very controlling environment wants to
do is go into counselling,” says Conner. “We get quite a lot of
referrals from refuges and it’s often not the best time for women
to undertake counselling because they are still trying to cope with
the impact of that.”
An equally important component of the project is the weekly support
group and the self-development workshops. A group worker runs the
support group. Each session lasts two hours, and the groups decide
how they organise each session. “One of the groups has decided to
work on a specific issue each week, and some groups want to work on
whatever the members bring that week. For example, how to cope with
domestic violence, how to build confidence to deal with panic
attacks, and how to deal with a partner who is harassing you,”
The self-development workshops focus on listening skills,
self-esteem, building confidence and, importantly, how to take
these skills outside of the project and help other women who may be
in the same situation. WT runs a peer group support system which,
Conner says, plays an invaluable role in fighting the isolation
that women in this situation often feel and gives them a chance to
meet others who have found a way out of an abusive relationship.
“Being the victim of domestic violence can leave women with a whole
host of problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety
attacks, depression and agoraphobia. Some women self-harm or
attempt suicide, and others have alcohol or drug problems and some
of them are on medication because GPs aren’t really sure how to
respond and routinely give women anti-depressants,” Conner
Domestic violence takes a heavy toll on the mental health of those
who endure it, and this often does not manifest itself until years
later. Professionals tend to focus on the crisis point, when the
woman is simply trying to deal with what is happening on that day,
but the more enduring mental health problems tend to surface much
Conner sees WT as having a big preventive role to play in
delivering the help that women need to stop them ending up in the
mental health system further down the road. It’s also about giving
women a belief and a hope that things can be different – that they
can have something good in their lives. “Domestic violence grinds
you down and you don’t believe that you can get yourself into a
situation where things can be better,” Conner says. “Our services
help women believe that their lives can be different and gives them
back some of their power to influence their lives.”
Winning the Community Care award has raised WT’s profile
and, it is hoped, will help it to secure services in the future. As
a result of the award, the chairperson of the local primary care
trust is due to visit to explore the possibility of commissioning
What’s next? A move to new premises thanks to the award money and
Association of London Government funding. Longer-term, the aim is
to try to make sure there are more locally-based services. “There
is a huge demand for our service and many of our clients travel
halfway across London to see us. We would like to think that in the
future they won’t have to,” says Conner.
– The mental health care category was sponsored by SWIIS.
1 Home Office, British
Crime Survey 2001-2, Home Office, July 2002
Making a difference
Three women, who wish to remain anonymous, explain how Woman’s
Trust has helped them:
“WT has helped me to be stronger in establishing a life with my
children alone – my confidence has improved so much, as has my
self-esteem. I can now look at the events over the past four years
and know that they were unacceptable.”
“I have been through a huge emotional process since using WT
services. It definitely has had an impact on my self-confidence and
I have more clarity about my role in relationships.”
“I feel confident now and look forward to the future differently. I
feel really good about myself.”