Help-seeking refers to the process of an individual seeking assistance from informal and formal sources of support. Informal sources of support include family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, employers, and faith-based leaders, whereas formal support refers to agencies within larger systems (e.g., criminal justice, human service, social service, and child protective systems). Regarding intimate partner violence (IPV), in particular, evidence suggests that survivors seek assistance from both informal and formal sources of support to meet a variety of needs; however, survivors are more likely to seek informal support. Survivors reported telling family and/or friends about the violence before telling formal sources like police. Informal assistance sought from family and friends is often important in helping the survivor cope with violence-associated stress or to become safer.
While the decision of whether and from whom to seek assistance is a complicated one, survivors of IPV engage in active help-seeking. Early theorizing about battered women and learned helplessness implied that survivors of IPV were unlikely to seek assistance. Others proposed that it was, in fact, the learned helplessness of the community that hindered survivors’ safety. Survivor theory provided an alternative that suggested that women’s help-seeking efforts are largely unmet by the community.
Indeed, IPV survivors face frequent barriers in their efforts to seek help from both formal and informal sources. Survivors seeking assistance from their informal network do not experience wholly positive or supportive reactions; rather, evidence suggests that survivors of IPV sometimes experience negative reactions from family and friends. Reactions perceived to be negative include victim blaming, making demands on the survivor (e.g., that she leave the relationship or move on with her life), withholding or removing tangible aid or emotional support, and jeopardizing the survivor’s safety. Research on negative reactions to sexual assault victims suggests such reactions are strongly related to overall health and well-being (e.g., increased rates of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, somatic symptoms) and have implications for recovery and future help-seeking.
IPV survivors may also face barriers in their efforts to engage formal helping sources. Historically, the community response to IPV against women has been characterized by inadequate services, as well as a lack of coordination across the systems involved in responding to domestic violence cases. IPV survivors have experienced revictimization by the formal systems designed to help them (e.g., the human service system) and to hold batterers accountable (e.g., the criminal justice system). Fortunately, with the current emphasis on creating a coordinated community response to violence against women and changes in federal and state laws, the community response is changing and, ideally, becoming more responsive to the needs of survivors.
Importantly, IPV survivors are not a monolithic group with regard to their help-seeking behavior. Survivors have varied wants and needs, including, for example, housing, financial assistance, emotional support, education, support for their children, and legal assistance. IPV survivors present a wide variety of diverse needs, and it is essential to tailor interventions to their stated priorities. Specifically, it is important for those responding to survivors’ help seeking not to impose their own “helping” agenda but to assist in the ways survivors indicate would be helpful.
Survivors’ help-seeking behavior is shaped by many sources of diversity including, for example, personal preferences, geographic locale (rural, urban, and suburban), culture, race and ethnicity, available resources, age, religious preferences, immigration status, and previous experiences (with abuse and with the helping response). For example, African American IPV survivors may be less likely to seek assistance from the police because of past historical mistreatment by the justice system. This suggests that survivors’ help-seeking behavior must be understood at multiple levels and that every effort should be made to respect and support survivors’ help-seeking decisions.
Finally, help-seeking is not a one-time, singular event, but a complex process that involves decision making that changes over time as it is shaped by an individual’s environment. Generally speaking, evidence suggests a progression in battered women’s active help-seeking from the first violent incidents to escalating forms of abuse. After the first abusive incidents survivors may blame themselves and try to change their own behavior. But as the abuse escalates, survivors increasingly hold the batterer responsible, realize the hope for changing him is futile, and begin to plan for life without him or look for additional ways to cope. Work is currently underway to develop a better understanding of battered women’s help-seeking processes. One theory suggests this process involves three stages: (1) recognizing and defining the problem, (2) making the decision to seek help, and (3) selecting a help source (e.g., friends, police). Additional research is needed to understand if these three stages adequately represent help-seeking among survivors of IPV.
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