May 27, 2024

How to better support someone experiencing domestic violence

Sexual and gender-based violence professionals and UCalgary researcher offer their tips
Two people talk on a bench
Remember the three Rs: Recognize behavioural signs. Respond with compassion and validation. Refer to resources. Frazao Studio Latino for Getty Images

Every hour of every day in Alberta, someone will be a victim of some form of violence by an ex-spouse or ex-partner. That’s not counting current partners or incidents that go unreported. Most perpetrators of this type of violence are men. 

In Canada, 44 per cent of women reported experiencing some form of psychological, physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetimes. 

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is a form of gender-based violence that encompasses a range of abusive behaviours used by a current or  former partner to exert power and control over another. These behaviours may include physical, emotional, sexual, financial and coercive abuse. 

Even though this type of violence is so prevalent, many of us feel unsure of actions to take when someone we know discloses or exhibits signs of being harmed. However, as professionals working in this space say, there are tangible ways we can support our friends, peers, loved ones, family members, neighbours and colleagues. 

As part of Sexual Violence Awareness Month this May, and UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy’s commitment to fostering a safe and caring campus, staff from the University of Calgary’s Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Prevention and Support Office, as well as Lana Wells, an associate professor with the Faculty of Social Work, offer ways to support those experiencing domestic violence. 

Start with remembering the 3 Rs

You can make a difference by remembering the three Rs: Recognize, Respond and Refer. First, you can learn to recognize the signs or patterns of abusive behaviours. Second, you can learn how to respond to your friend or peer in appropriate and helpful ways. Third, you can learn about resources available at the university and in the community so you can help your friend or colleague get the help they need. 

Recognize: Learn to recognize signs of abuse

“Recognizing abuse is about seeing a pattern of behaviours that are repetitive and harmful,” says Paula Russel, BA’12, BSW’23, sexual and gender-based violence support adviser. “It can look like people acting differently than usual, or afraid or fearful of their partner.”

Signs of someone experiencing violence may include unexplained injuries, changes in behaviour or appearance, isolation from friends and family, frequent absences or tardiness, and signs of psychological distress such as anxiety or depression.

It is essential to approach these situations with sensitivity and empathy, while also respecting the individual's autonomy and confidentiality. 

"Having somebody gently express concern, reflect that you are worthy, valuable, and deserving of care, can be an important factor in supporting a person experiencing abuse to seek support," says Meg Martin, BA’11, MC’16, a registered psychologist and manager at the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Support Office. 

Someone may also choose to disclose before even being asked. “Most people disclose to trusted friends or family before going to police or a community resource,” says Wells, a registered social worker and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence. “While it’s good to know how to initiate a conversation, it’s also about being prepared for one.”

Respond: Learn how to respond appropriately by initiating conversation and listening compassionately 

Initiating a conversation can be the first step to opening the door to showing someone your support. Some examples could be: "I've noticed some changes in your behaviour lately, and I'm concerned. Would you like to talk about it?" Or, "I'm here to listen if you ever need to talk. Your safety and well-being are important to me."

Once someone discloses to you, how you respond matters. “Listening compassionately and without judgment is a cornerstone of showing support,” says Wells. “When someone opens up about their experiences, it's crucial to listen and validate their feelings and experiences.” 

Tips for listening compassionately: 

  • Give your full attention, without interruption. 
  • Validate their feelings and experiences. 
  • Avoid using blaming language or judgmental statements. 
  • Do not be surprised if you encounter resistance or reluctance to talk. That’s OK.
  • Listen with empathy. Tell them you believe them!

“It’s important to remember, if your friend or colleague decides to stay in the relationship, even after they have disclosed to you, try not to judge them,” says Wells. “Often, leaving a person who uses abuse can be extremely dangerous for the victim. One of the most valuable things you can offer a person when they disclose abuse is non-judgmental support.” 

Refer: Get to know resources available at the university and in the community

Learn about the resources available at the university and in the community. Empowering people who are experiencing domestic violence to make their own choices of when to reach out is crucial not only for their autonomy, but also because they are the experts of their own lives. Their decisions should be respected and supported without judgment or pressure. 

"Support and empower victims to make their own decisions around these kinds of situations, even when it's difficult,” says Russel. “Knowing that there are resources available may help them when they’re ready.”

If you think someone you know is experiencing abuse, check out these resources:

  • If someone is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or UCalgary Campus Security at 403-220-5333.
  • Put their safety first. Never talk to anyone about abuse in front of their suspected abuser. Unless they specifically ask for it, never give them materials about intimate partner violence or leave information through voice messages or emails that might be discovered by their abuser. 
  • Take safety and wellness resources with you on the go. Stay safe by staying connected — download and use the UCSafety App
  • Call the 24-hour Family Violence Helpline at 403-234-SAFE (7233), or 2-1-1. 
  • For sexual violence, text or call Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence at 1-866-403-8000, or access its confidential chat service

“You don’t need to have all the answers, but a great referral to community resources can be a lifesaving intervention,” says Wells.

More resources for helping learn the 3 Rs

Meg Martin, MC, Registered Psychologist, works in UCalgary's Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Support Office as Manager, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Prevention and Response. She is also a facilitator, therapist, educator, and advocate. She has extensive experience working with human services agencies in Calgary in front-line service and leadership roles related to SGBV, additions, and traumatic grief and loss.

Paula Russel, RSW, is a support advisor in UCalgary's Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Support Office. She has worked in education, volunteer management, facilitation, front-line and leadership roles. Russel is also a facilitator and certified mentor for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services’ First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training program and serves on the program's provincial advisory committee.

Lana Wells, MSW, RSW who contributed to this article, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work. She is also the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence and created Shift, the first research hub in Canada to focus on stopping domestic and sexual violence before it starts. In 2023, Wells received the Killam Professor Award and in 2022, received The Order of the University of Calgary in recognition of her community work.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn about the strategy and its renewal here.

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