Family violence a hidden factor in mental illness and homelessness

Family violence can be an invisible and misunderstood factor in the situations of people being treated in mental health settings. It can also mean that being discharged back to an unsafe home will further undermine a person’s mental health, leaving them at risk of homelessness. 

A partnership between mental health provider Wellways Australia and McAuley is helping to address these challenges and bring greater insight and awareness of family violence as a factor in a person’s mental health. Through the co-location of two Family Violence and Homelessness workers within residential mental health services, connections can be made to McAuley’s range of housing, employment and legal services. 

‘When family violence is overlooked or not recognised when a person presents with mental illness, all aspects of recovery and care planning will be hampered and incomplete,’ says Liv, one of the workers. ‘This can be because the person feels acknowledgement of a central part of their experience – especially the impact of living in constant fear – is missing. 

‘For example, a person’s anxiety and depression may be viewed only through a clinical lens, without recognition of the role that trauma has played or the undermining of mental health that has occurred in an abusive relationship. 

‘Or a person might present as paranoid or delusional, for example, because they believe they are under surveillance or their movements constantly tracked. But this is a realistic fear for someone who has been stalked or harassed by a violent and controlling partner. 

‘There are also instances where a person has not recognised their relationship as abusive but the constant undermining of their sense of self-worth – including being labelled as “crazy” – becomes another significant factor in poor mental health’.  

Her colleague Ishita says: ‘This can mean that the abusive person is being included in assessment and discharge planning, or relationship counselling is offered. Such counselling is really not suitable within a violent relationship given the power imbalances and patterns of control and manipulation’.  

The two workers’ role within the teams is also educative. They can support mental health workers to recognise signs of family violence which are sometimes just seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘chaotic’ relationships. Recently they conducted training to Wellways workers in using the Victorian family violence assessment tool MARAM.  

They also work directly with those experiencing family violence, and at risk of homelessness, on safety planning and housing options. Their role can continue if women begin living in McAuley’s housing services, including by acting as a liaison with mental health services or as a resource to McAuley staff if a woman’s mental wellbeing is unstable and fluctuating.