Northern Ireland news

The New Normal: Sexual trauma charity Nexus on helping victims during lockdown

More than a thousand people in Northern Ireland are waiting for sexual trauma counselling. Claire Simpson speaks to Brenda Kelly, chief executive of Nexus NI, about how it is continuing to counsel victims and survivors during the pandemic.

Nexus NI is continuing to counsel victims and survivors of sexual trauma during the pandemic

“There was an anxiety at being home with abusers and (people were) scared to leave in case they would catch Covid.” 

During lockdown, leading sexual trauma charity Nexus NI noticed a change in calls to the north’s domestic and sexual violence helpline, which gives help and information to victims of sexual trauma.

Although the PSNI said that at the start of lockdown it had seen a rise in domestic abuse calls - an increase of 618 from March 25 to May 5 compared to the same period in 2019 - Nexus said it initially received fewer calls to the domestic and sexual violence helpline, which it manages.

Chief Executive Brenda Kelly said: “The reason we think we saw a drop initially was that people were locked in with potential perpetrators and that would have made it extremely difficult for them to get in touch with us.

“We started to see a steady rise from about June onwards and our numbers started to climb again in terms of calls. It’s now up to a fairly steady rate of calls every week. What the next lockdown does, we’re not sure what the impact will be.”

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She said the type and duration of calls the helpline received during lockdown had altered.

“We know that during the pandemic the call lengths from people ringing the helpline had increased,” she said.

“So the length of time that people were on the phone was longer and… the issues that they were ringing about were slightly different. The whole issue with Covid had intensified people’s anxiety and we definitely had more people presenting with suicidal inclination. There was an anxiety at being home with abusers and (people were) scared to leave in case they would catch Covid.”

Ms Kelly said the number of people using the charity’s web-chat advice service had also “increased significantly”.

“People are using our web-chat if they feel that they can’t make a telephone call,” she said.

“That’s a new thing that we brought in. We’ve now seen it coming into its own during Covid."

Nexus helps more than 600 people every year through its free counselling service.

Just days after lockdown was announced, it moved to a telephone counselling service which enabled it to reach victims and survivors during the pandemic.

“We needed to do something very, very quickly, and we did,” she said. 

"Our counsellors responded brilliantly and the feedback from clients has been really, really positive.

She added: “I’m very proud of our staff and the way that they handled it.”

Brenda Kelly, chief executive of Nexus NI

Ms Kelly said some clients and counsellors were initially unsure if telephone counselling would work but many now prefer it. However, the shift has not been without its challenges.

“If you were sitting with someone face-to-face you could see their facial expressions and body language," she said.

"You don’t have that with telephone counselling. You have to listen very intently to the change in tone of their voice and the words that they are saying or not saying.”

The charity provides 12,200 counselling sessions every year to people who have suffered recent and historic sexual trauma.

Around 130 potential clients are referred to the service every month, including people who contact Nexus directly, and approximately a thousand people are waiting for a counselling slot.

Ms Kelly said the number of people visiting the referral page on Nexus’s website had risen recently.

“Some people may have suffered trauma years ago and something triggers them now and now they feel it’s the right time to come forward,” she said.

Earlier this month, the charity was given funding from the Health and Social Care Board to provide an extra 4,480 counselling sessions per year, meaning it can reach hundreds more people.

The charity is increasing the hours of some of its counsellors and is preparing to recruit more on a self-employed basis.

“We deliver about 18 sessions per person… It varies obviously but that’s on average,” Ms Kelly said.

“With the increased sessions that’s 944 people that we’ll be able to counsel every year. Before it was 677. It’s an increase of 40%… It’s not going to reduce the waiting list to nothing unfortunately… but we do hope that the list will start to come down and that the time people will have to wait will be reduced.”

Ms Kelly said Nexus may continue to offer telephone counselling, as well as a face-to-face service, once the pandemic ends.

“This might suit people,” she said.

"We found that counsellors are having far less cancellations because they’re not having to travel to counselling and are not having to make that effort of coming through the front door.”

Nexus also provides child sexual exploitation training to professionals as well as workshops on consent, sex and relationships to community groups and schools.

While the charity would like to provide its training online, Ms Kelly said one of the challenges is that sometimes the workshops can affect participants in ways they were not expecting.

“It may be that they are attending as part of their professional capacity or something else something in the training could potentially trigger them,” she said.

“Obviously when you’re in the room with them you’re able to support them in that moment. If you’re online that’s a lot more difficult. That’s something we’re very alert to as a risk. We’re looking at how we can provide an online ‘break-out’ room so someone can step into that room with a counsellor available to talk to them if they are triggered.”

She said Nexus is also considering how it can provide training online to schools.

“One of the challenges there is that we know that the work we have done in schools can often lead to disclosures where they come to our staff and disclose that they have suffered sexual trauma or that they are suffering sexual trauma,” she said.

"Again without the person physically there face-to-face we’re not sure if that will prohibit people coming forward with disclosures.

“We’re doing everything we can to provide the best service and the safest service possible across everything that we do.”

- For more information on Nexus NI visit www.nexusni.org

- To contact the Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline ring 0808 802 1414 or email: help@dsahelpline.org

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