February 29, 2020
The vast majority of women who are impacted by intimate partner violence (IPV) do not seek or receive the support they need, mainly due to privacy concerns, social stigmas and barriers such as a lack of services in their communities.
Now, researchers have developed an online tool that can help women experiencing IPV to receive critical support more easily and securely. Known as iCAN Plan 4 Safety (iCAN), the tool offers users personalized strategies and resources for improving their health and safety.
“Intimate partner violence has been linked to a host of physical and mental health challenges, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms,” says Colleen Varcoe, a co-lead of the study and a nursing professor at the University of British Columbia. “Addressing these challenges is a complex, long-term process, and this tool was designed to help guide women through it.”
To assess the iCAN tool, Varcoe and her colleagues enrolled 462 women experiencing IPV in Canada in a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Participants used either a tailored, interactive version or a non-tailored, static version of the tool for one year, completing four online surveys to track their progress and providing feedback at the study’s end.
The tailored intervention provided users with a detailed action plan to address their individual priorities, risks and concerns. The personalized plan, which users were able to modify as necessary, was based on the participants’ responses to background questions and interactive activities. In contrast, the non-tailored intervention provided participants with basic information and a standardized action plan.
Women in both arms of the study reported fewer symptoms of depression and post traumatic stress disorder. They also reported increased confidence in safety planning, a stronger perception of control over their lives and fewer experiences of coercion from their abusive partners, among other benefits.
But the tailored intervention was rated more helpful and better suited to users’ needs overall. It was found to be especially beneficial to four subgroups of women: those with children under 18 living at home; those reporting more severe violence; those living in medium-sized and large urban centers; and those not living with a partner.
“There has been tremendous growth in online information and apps for women experiencing partner violence, but most are not based on evidence, nor have they been tested for safety and impacts for women,” said Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, Western University’s Women’s Health Research Chair in Rural Health, who co-led the study. “Our promising findings address this gap with a made-in-Canada solution that women find helpful and safe to use, and that has benefits for specific groups of women.”
One in three women globally are affected by IPV, but 80 per cent of them do not access violence support services such as shelters. The researchers aim to make the iCAN tool available to Canadian women as a free app in the near future, as well as to work with support agencies to explore ways to integrate the tool into existing programs.
The study, published this week in BMC Public Health, was a collaboration among the University of British Columbia, Western University and the University of Brunswick.