iHEAL: New app marks Canada 1st in helping women cope with partner violence

Click to play video: 'Bilateral agreement to provide over $160M to help Ontario address gender-based violence'
Bilateral agreement to provide over $160M to help Ontario address gender-based violence
As gender-based and intimate partner violence continue to increase across the country, advocates have been asking for more support. The federal and provincial government have signed a bilateral agreement to commit over $160 million dollars to address the crisis – Nov 20, 2023

Researchers with Western University say that more than 40 per cent of Canadian women experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, while only 20 per cent access formal services “due to a myriad of barriers.”

In working to address that gap, a team, led by the London, Ont., university, and in partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of New Brunswick (UNB), have developed an online tool to help victims across Canada who experience violence from current or past partners.

The free, secure and bilingual app, called iHEAL, provides personalized ways for woman to stay safe while addressing their basic needs, such as safe housing, food, health and wellbeing, childcare, finances, and legal options, through interactive activities and topics.

Nadine Wathen, the knowledge mobilization lead and co-investigator of iHEAL, told Global News that this project is over 10 years in the making.

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“I think what really sets it apart from other apps is that it is based on about 20 years’ worth of research,” she said. “We’ve really worked to know what women need and what women want. I think an important thing is that it really works with women where they’re at, so it doesn’t make any assumptions on what their path should be.”

The app, launched earlier this week, comes in the midst of Women Abuse Prevention Month. However, within the past year, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses reported over 46 femicides, saying that on average, a woman or child was killed by a man known to them every seven days in the province.

Wathen said that the app’s research team, led by Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, a nursing professor at Western, was working to find ways where digital spaces can help improve the safety and well-being of women who experience partner violence.

“I think one of the things that distinguishes this app is it understands that that there is the immediate safety needs, but also that violence will affect women and their broader circle their family, their children for a long time,” she said.

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According to the research team, app features include standard risk and health assessments, grounding exercises and safety features to attend to women’s physical, spiritual and emotional safety.

While the app can be used as a standalone resource for women, it also complements existing social and health services with links to more than 400 resources across Canada, which can be personalized to the woman’s province or territory.

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Additionally, the iHEAL app can also be used to help a victim’s family or friends and provide information as well as identify ways to support them.

“We need to recognize the multiple needs and the multiple issues that need to be addressed as a woman decides what’s next… we have to look at that broader landscape of what’s going on in that women’s lives and those who could be impacted,” Wathen said.

Colleen Varcoe, project co-lead and professor emeritus of nursing at UBC, said that the team “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.”

“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,” she said.

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“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,” said Ford-Gilboe, who is also the Women’s Health Research Chair in Rural Health at Western. “It changed everything.

“The app is a way to try to reach more women and reach them in ways that are meaningful for them,” she continued. “It provides a space for a woman to reflect on her situation, identify what’s going on and navigate through her priorities.”

Kelly Scott-Storey, project co-lead and assistant dean and professor of nursing at UNB, called the app “a tool within their toolkit.”

“It doesn’t replace existing services, but it certainly is another access point for women to seek the help they need,” she said.

The app can also be used by frontline workers and service providers across different sectors to help women assess risks as well as any information for “issues that may fall outside their areas of expertise,” according to the team.

Leanne Field is a public health nurse with the Middlesex London Health Unit (MLHU) who has been testing the app for the past month. She said that iHEAL provides women with 24/7 support and referred to it as a “tangible tool” they can access while awaiting services.

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Going back to Wathen, she said that the app itself can also be disguised in providing an additional layer of safety for the user.

“In the event of a controller partner, there’s a quick exit button on every page of the app,” she told Global News. “The user just has to press that, and it goes right to the Weather Network page… Also, if a partner is trying to force her to open the app to see what’s going on in there, they can press 1,2,3,4, and it will, again, go to the Weather Network app.”

The research team said that iHEAL is supported by funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada as well as Women and Gender Equality Canada.

The app, available in both English and French, can be accessed from a computer of downloaded to a mobile device.

More information about iHEAL can be found here.

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