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How one nurse’s experience of family violence shaped her career

Sarah* is a survivor of multigenerational family violence. She grew up in what she describes as a “dysfunctional home”. Her mother was an alcoholic who was emotionally abusive. And at age 20, her uncle sexually assaulted her.

Sarah is not alone. Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that 18 per cent of women (1 in 5) have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, and 23 per cent of women “have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner since the age of 15".

However, research by The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne has found that for female healthcare professionals like Sarah, who is a nurse, that figure rises to 45 per cent.

Furthermore, a follow-up paper has found that health professionals who have experienced family violence are better at dealing with patients who have shared experiences.

“What we found was that survivors of family violence who are also health professionals are doing more of the work that we consider to be best practice with patients who have experienced family violence. And that this study suggests they're an asset to the healthcare organisation in which they work,” says lead researcher Elizabeth McLindon from the University of Melbourne and the Royal Women’s Hospital.

Initially, researchers wondered if past experiences of family violence may then be a barrier to good practice for nurses. However, the study found that survivor health professionals were more likely to have undertaken domestic violence (DV) training, report more sensitive attitudes towards DV survivors and did not find discussing DV with patients more upsetting than their non-survivor colleagues.

"And the biggest difference between survivors of family violence on staff, and those who haven't had those experiences, was that survivors of family violence went to professional domestic violence or family violence training far more than their peers. The odds of them attending training about family violence are about 90 per cent greater if they were a survivor themselves,” McLindon says.

Aged 25 and after a few years living overseas, Sarah went to uni to train to be a nurse, only for violence to came back into her life, this time from a partner.

“I graduated … [and] became a sexual health and drug and alcohol nurse. And my nursing career started right in the thick of chaotic, marginalised people who were dealing with family and sexual violence on a kind of day to day level. I was not just living it myself, but then also supporting people through it as well at the same time,” she says.

Sarah thinks she was drawn to nursing, and specifically to helping family violence survivors, because of her experience, even if she wasn’t conscious of it at the time.

“I think it was subconscious,” she says. “One of the rotations in that graduate year was this particular workplace that was a drug and alcohol community health centre. And it was just like I had found my people, that my colleagues were people who understood me and where I'd come from. It was a very supportive workplace, the management structure was exceptional. And I just thought, ‘My God, I've found my place.'

“My career took me to a place where I was then supporting women who'd survived sexual assault. I never set out to do that, but I just kept walking this path that kept drawing me further and further towards people who I felt really compelled to support.”

Sarah now makes it her “absolute business” to ensure people know where to go to get help, information and resources. She is helping people in a way she wishes she had been helped through her trauma.

“For want of a better phrase, it's an absolute shit storm trying to navigate the world of family violence. And you're talking about an incredibly vulnerable group of people who need to be focused and educated and understand how to navigate these services,” she says.

“I look back now and realise just how well I would have done had I had someone... to give me a hand.”

The statistics thrown up by the research also raise questions as to the support networks available to the clinical workforce when they face family violence.

McLindon says that although this particular study did not focus on health outcomes of the clinicians studied, the academic literature suggests that those who experience family violence suffer “chronic and serious health impacts”.

“In terms of the impacts for these nurses, half of the people in our study who'd experienced family violence said that it had impacted upon them at work. And for 80 per cent of them, they had experienced a psychological or physical injury that stopped them or impaired them at work as a result of the violence,” she says.

“This is kind of a multi-layered response,” Sarah says of the effects of her trauma. “I absolutely suffered from the vicarious trauma, I had no idea that after 10 years of working in that sector, I was completely burnt out.”

The saving grace for Sarah was the support network she had at the time, which included a new partner and an understanding manager, who saw the signs of burn-out.

“She prioritised her staff’s self-care, but she also provided monthly supervision to each of us clinical staff members. We had a place to take that vicarious trauma and to discuss it in an incredibly professional and respectful manner,” she said.

Trauma awareness in the workplace can mean a lot to survivors like Sarah, who deal with the fallout of family violence long after it has stopped.

One of Sarah’s abusive partners worked in the industry, and as a result of court appearances and other related issues she had to miss work and eventually leave town.

“Even at the time when I needed to access the police assistance to take out intervention orders and stuff like that, I was the manager of my team," she says. "And so, you've got managers taking time off work... I can imagine it would be a lot more cost-effective if they just provided some assistance to be able to take time off."

The Women’s is working hard to help their workforce. It runs the Strengthening Hospital Response to Family Violence (SHRFV) program aimed at helping patients, and the SHRFV has now secured Victorian Government funding for a Family Violence Workplace Support Program to enable 88 hospitals and healthcare services across Victoria to better support staff disclosing their experience of family violence.

“This work is in the very early stages," says McLindon. "I think we need to be thinking about our hospitals as places that are trauma informed. So they've got an awareness that trauma can be an enormous influence in people's lives and that it doesn't just affect patients, it affects staff."

Sarah’s* name has been changed to protect her identity.

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