‘It’s hard to have compassion’: can interventions change violent men’s behaviour?

<span>Working only with women may help reduce domestic violence risks, but working with men has the potential to get closer to the heart of the problem, Zac Seidler says.</span><span>Illustration: Guardian Design</span>
Working only with women may help reduce domestic violence risks, but working with men has the potential to get closer to the heart of the problem, Zac Seidler says.Illustration: Guardian Design

Australia cannot hope to prevent domestic violence without earlier intervention addressing the underlying mental health risk factors among male perpetrators, clinical psychologist Dr Zac Seidler says.

Seidler, the global director of men’s health research at Movember, is providing evidence from a men’s health lens to the expert panel the government has assembled for a rapid review into best-practice approaches for preventing domestic violence.

The boys and men most at risk of perpetration, Seidler says, are a “massively overlooked part of the equation”, largely because empathy of any kind – including delving into the complexities of the men’s lives – is considered by some to amount to condoning or excusing perpetration.

Seidler says he takes a pragmatic view that understanding the risk factors offers insight into the opportunities for earlier intervention.

“Viewing violence prevention by only working with women is pure risk reduction. If you deal with men and their behaviours and what is happening in their lives, that is a prevention exercise,” Seidler says.

“The women’s sector is doing incredible work and has been – with the smell of an oily rag, peanuts of funding – attempting to make change. But all they can do in creating more shelters and more services to respond to the behaviour that men are enacting, it’s a Band-Aid solution to what is a men’s public health crisis.”

Missed opportunities for prevention

Among the factors that make men more likely to commit domestic violence are childhood maltreatment, addiction, mental health problems and suicidal feelings. When those are compounded by perceived failures of masculinity such as financial insecurity and relationship breakdown, “the risk really starts to ramp up”, Seidler says.

A 2022 study from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, which sampled 199 incidents between 2007 and 2018 where men killed their female partner, found 43% of offenders had mental health problems and 54% had alcohol and other drug problems – which were often underpinned by experiences of trauma. More than half (55%) had experienced traumatic life events, and 32% had suffered abuse and neglect during their childhood and adolescence.

However, Seidler says diagnosing mental health conditions in men can be a challenge. He says the way in which depression and anxiety manifest in women accords with the way in which mental health professionals have been trained to recognise them – as an internalising experience of hopelessness and worthlessness.

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Many men find the experience of those internalising symptoms “so uncomfortable and so foreign that they bottle them up, and it leads to this externalising where some can just explode”, Seidler says.

Compassion I think is a bit of a way off – but we need hope to understand

Dr Zac Seidler

“The fact that murder-suicides are so common in this country should be an alarm bell, which is the fact that suicidality is the earliest precursor in some men for violence perpetration, because hurting oneself and hurting others go hand in hand in some instances.

“It’s very hard to have compassion for men in those circumstances when they’re extremely angry, aggressive, frustrated, misusing substances, but that’s the challenge that our future faces which is that you need to be willing to see those as opportunities for intervention rather than leading to further distancing.”

Seidler says at the moment we teach boys about respectful relationships while they are in school, but “then we do nothing until there’s violence”.

He says decision-makers need to look towards the missed opportunities for early intervention based on the known risk factors.

“Was there an opportunity when child services came when they were abused as a boy? When they were growing up and their parents divorced? When they got to university and were dealing with extensive financial insecurity and financial distress, and then later on, when they ended up in a relationship breakdown and divorce?”

Part of helping men achieve better mental health is challenging society’s idea around what it means to be a man, Seidler says, which “at its very core is based on the binary of success and failure”.

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“If we are able to do that, men will be able to understand that there is no right way of being and it can reduce the pressure, the shame, the feelings of failure, and hopefully lead to an open conversation in times of vulnerability.”

‘These men and boys are not well’

Experts including Seidler stress that addressing risk factors in perpetrators does not mean excusing their actions, and that helping men address issues rooted in their past helps them accept accountability for present behaviour.

Elise Phillips, the deputy chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW, agrees that risk factors exist but emphasises that intimate partner violence is still a choice.

“Perpetrators of intimate partner violence are usually not violent in their workplaces, or in their social settings; they are choosing to be violent and abusive in their intimate partner relationships,” Phillips says.

The 20-week men’s behaviour change programs (MBCP), which men enter voluntarily or through a court order for a domestic and family violence offence, involve group work around respectful relationships, as well as individual case management.

Allison Wainwright, the chief executive of Family Life, which runs more than 20 men’s behaviour change programs in Victoria, says the case management part of the program is often about addressing underlying mental health issues. The men in Family’s Life programs often have a range of complex comorbidities, and most, if not all, having complex trauma backgrounds, she says.

Wainwright points to the fact that data is only recently shining a light on how prevalent childhood maltreatment is in Australia. The first Childhood Maltreatment Study, published in the Australian Medical Journal in 2023, showed almost 40% of children had been exposed to domestic violence.

“For a lot of the men we work with that trauma drives them into a space where they struggle significantly to have healthy attachment relationships with people in their families including their partners and their children and ultimately leads them to a point where they end up using violence in the home,” Wainwright says.

“We need to accept that while primary prevention and respectful relationship work is important – I don’t see this as one against the other, we need both – and over and above that we need to work with these men… and help them recover from that childhood trauma and reach personal responsibility,” Wainwright says.

Elisabeth Shaw, the chief executive of the New South Wales arm of Relationships Australia, which runs behaviour change programs, says there is strong evidence that they are effective in reducing violence and abusive behaviours, with the UK’s Project Mirabal the largest and most robust study.

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Shaw says pre- and post-intervention surveys given to participants, and input from partners and ex-partners who are involved in parallel programs, have produced meaningful evaluations of whether the programs work.

Seidler says “these men and boys are not well, and that is something that I think the country is starting to come to terms with”.

“Compassion I think is a bit of a way off – but we need hope to understand that this is not the way that they want to nor need to lead their lives. If you can provide them with the infrastructure for a different way of relating to the world, everyone will benefit.”