More than 40 per cent of Canadian women experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. Due to a myriad of barriers, including fear of the partner, accessibility, worries about confidentiality and not knowing what to expect, only 20 per cent of them access formal services.
To address this gap, researchers from Western University, the University of British Columbia and University of New Brunswick have developed a free, secure and bilingual app, called iHEAL, to help women across Canada who experience violence from a current or past partner find personalized ways to stay safe and healthy while getting their basic needs met and reclaiming their power.
For more than 10 years, the team, led by Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, professor at Western’s Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing, has been working to find ways in which digital spaces can help improve health, safety and well-being of women who experience partner violence.
“The app is a way to try to reach more women and reach them in ways that are meaningful for them,” said Ford-Gilboe, also the Women’s Health Research Chair in Rural Health at Western. “It provides a space for a woman to reflect on her situation, identify what’s going on and navigate through her priorities.”
The interactive activities and topics within the iHEAL app help women address needs they have identified in their current situation, including safe housing, food, health and well-being, childcare, finances, legal options and building a network of support.
Features of the app include a standard risk assessment, health assessments, grounding exercises and safety features to attend to women’s physical, spiritual and emotional safety and well-being. The app also provides information about services that women may find helpful with links to more than 400 of these resources across Canada, personalized to the woman’s province or territory.
A unique part of the app is its focus on the effects of abuse on women’s health and well-being – concerns that can continue even after they are not facing partner abuse.
“We learned a lot about the ongoing impacts of violence on women’s health, including chronic pain and common trauma symptoms such as the inability to sleep,” said Colleen Varcoe, project co-lead and professor emeritus of nursing at UBC. “So, we put a lot of emphasis on women’s health because that is what women are dealing with when they are experiencing violence, and even long after the abuse ends.”
In addition to supporting health and well-being, the app can also be used to help family members and friends of women who experience partner violence better understand what they have experienced and identify ways to support them.
“There was a woman who was trying to explain to her father what she had been going through and didn’t have the words to explain it, so she showed him one of the exercises that she had completed in the app, and he read it and then he understood. It changed everything. So, it was a way for her to be able to explain to her father what she had been going through and to enlist his support,” Ford-Gilboe said.
Additional resource for service providers
While the app can be used as a standalone resource for women, it also complements existing social and health services.
“It doesn’t replace existing services, but it certainly is another access point for women to seek the help they need,” said Kelly Scott-Storey, project co-lead and assistant dean and professor of nursing at the University of New Brunswick. “It’s a tool within their toolkit.”
Frontline workers and service providers in many different sectors can use the app to help women assess risks and find credible information and resources, including for issues that may fall outside their areas of expertise.
Leanne Field, a public health nurse with the Middlesex London Health Unit, has been piloting this app for the past month and says it provides women with 24/7 support and is a tangible tool they can access while waiting for services.
She also reiterated the value in the app’s ability to help friends or family members of affected women better understand their situations. The app can also provide information for service providers who may be looking to enhance their knowledge and gain information.
Field said the app gives women agency, choice, independence and control.
The development of iHEAL is supported by funding from Public Health Agency of Canada with contributions from Women and Gender Equality Canada. The app is available in English and French and can be accessed on a computer or downloaded to a mobile device.
If you are experiencing violence in a relationship or feel yourself at risk of violence
- In an emergency, call 9-1-1.
- In London, Ont., Anova offers counselling and various other support such as emergency shelter and second-stage housing. Atlohsa Family Support Centre provides support for Indigenous women and families. The London Abused Women’s Centre provides community-based programming and counselling.
- Nationally, Canadians can find a suite of family-violence resources and services at this link.