Women's Health

Post-Doctoral Fellowships

United Kingdom

Domestic violence against women: giving friends and relatives the keys to help

Summary of the outcomes of the postdoctoral research project started in : 08/31/2019

Domestic violence and abuse (DVA) include physical, sexual, economic, psychological, emotional and controlling, coercive, violent or threatening behaviour. It is a major public health issue and affects nearly 1 in 3 women worldwide. DVA is experienced by women of all ages and from all backgrounds and has wide-reaching physical and mental health consequences. For example, survivors of domestic violence and abuse are more likely to experience periods of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress (1), and are more likely to attempt or die by suicide (2). Unfortunately, people’s experiences of DVA worsened during the Covid pandemic (3).  

Women who have experienced DVA often struggle to seek support, but when they disclose their experiences, they are most likely to confide in someone they know – a friend, family member, neighbour or colleague (known as “informal supporters”) – rather than a professional (4). When positive, support from informal supporters can be vital, but most of us have little idea what advice to give in such situations. Most people worry they will “get it wrong” because they lack information and the right skills. 

Dr. Alison Gregory, AXA Research Fund Women Health Fellowship Grantee at Bristol University’s Medical School, recognised that the absence of equipping for informal supporters was problematic and needed to be addressed. Her journey with this work began with her own experiences. Even though she had been an expert in DVA for some time, when one of her friends disclosed experiences of abuse, she felt ill-equipped and out of her depth. Thus began her research trajectory in informal support. 

The aim of Dr. Gregory’s fellowship project was to establish the resources needed by informal supporters, to equip them to provide good support to women experiencing domestic abuse. Dr Gregory found that a resource that combined accessible information about DVA with practical advice and acknowledgement of emotional impacts was most needed.  As a result, she has developed an online website resource (due to go live by the end of 2023) that includes information about what domestic violence and abuse is, who it happens to, how dangerous it can be, and what the common impacts are. It also includes practical advice about what people might notice in situations of DVA, how to sensitively ask questions and listen and respond well – including the all-important “what to say” and “what not to say”.  

Moreover, the resource is designed to help informal supporters look after their own wellbeing and safety. It is not easy to support someone you care about, particularly when the situation is dangerous and may continue for months or even years. Self-care and building resilience are key to informal supporters remaining well themselves which, in turn, means that they are able to continue offering positive support.  

Since the COVID pandemic hit during the project, Dr. Gregory was additionally able to investigate how the social restrictions made offering informal support more difficult and the ways that friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues adapted their strategies to continue providing support. The findings from this extra piece of research, which have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and communicated via press releases and at practitioner conferences, showed that informal supporters adapted behaviours in order to remain in contact with women experiencing DVA – even if this meant breaking lockdown rules. They also developed covert strategies for remaining in touch when they knew that communications were being monitored.  

Friends, family members, neighbours, and colleagues can be an incredible resource in situations of domestic violence and abuse, and most people genuinely want to help. By properly investing in this population, and ensuring they are equipped and resourced, we effectively improve situations and outcomes for women experiencing DVA. Dr Gregory’s fellowship project has taken us one step closer by giving informal supporters the keys to help.  



(1) Chandan et al., 2020; Trevillion et al., 2012 

(2) Devries et al., 2011). 




February 2023

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University of Bristol


United Kingdom



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