Practical advice for handling psychological abuse
and impact on wellbeing
This section sets out the practical advice for dealing with psychological abuse
This section presents practical principles that councillors can follow to minimise the risk of psychological abuse and limit its impact on councillor’s wellbeing. The principles can be applied to various forms of online and offline intimidation, including among others harassment, verbal threats of harm or stalking and we have provided example throughout the Guide.
Definition and legal position
Psychological abuse includes actions that degrade, demoralise or shame, instilling fear, cause stress or harm credibility. A large part of psychological abuse is intimidation, which can take multiple forms. For example, threats of harm, death or rape, verbal abuse, verbal abuse that may or may not include threats of physical violence, bullying, being followed, vandalism, stalking and/or harassment . They can be carried out in person, by phone, by emails and on social media. In the same way that physical harm has psychological consequences, psychological abuse can also cause physical consequences . It is often particularly targeted at women and other underrepresented groups. It is a very harmful form of abuse as it can cause significant stress and anxiety, as well as having more general negative effects on mental health.
Many forms of psychological abuse are criminal offences, including harassment, being followed, persistent and/or unwanted communication or contact (Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and Protection of Freedoms Ac 2012), threats, conduct which causes a nuisance, alarm or distress (Public Order Act1986), and damage to property (Criminal Damage Act 1971) (see legal section).
The best way to handle threats and other intimidatory behaviours depends on the way they have been expressed by the perpetrator. Threats to kill, rape, serious violence or assault, damage to property should be reported to the police.
Below we’ll go through some principles and examples of how councillors can do this in practice.
As discussed before in this Guide, actions of intimidation are often delivered online on social media platforms or over email. We are aware that some councillors may avoid using social media out of fear of being threatened or abused there. But this is also preventing them from using a very effective tool for political communication. One way of dealing with online intimidation on social media is to delete, block and report abusive posts and users.
Take the following case as an example:
A councillor was appointed to their council’s Audit Committee. Two months after they started their role, the councillor started receiving social media attacks that included defamatory statements made by different anonymous accounts. At the same time, the councillor started receiving threatening and intimidating emails every time a decision was made by their committee. It was clear that the aim of such actions was to make the councillor resign their new role. Thus, the councillor decided to block anonymous accounts and report them to the social media platform used.
Useful additional advice on online abuse is included in the section presented before. Additionally, councillors should be aware that not all actions and decisions made by the council will attract the same public interest. When decisions made have high impact over residents’ lives it is more likely that abusive or threatening communications will occur. It is advised that councillors take preventive steps to improve email and social media security when a controversial measure / policy is taken or discussed. This can be done, for example, by applying anti-profanity filters, installing anti-malware on all devices, using encrypted mail services and updating passwords.
Remove personal information from the public domain
Perpetrators are often unknown to councillors or are individuals with which they have had limited contact in the past. These individuals will seek to acquire information about councillors and their routines in order to deliver their threats.
Take for example:
A councillor has received three threats to damage property. One was delivered over email, the other two over the phone. The councillor was stopped outside the local cinema by a person who has made at least one of such threats and who started taking photographs without the councillor’s consent. The councillor realised that it was quite easy to figure out their routine as they often posted on their public Facebook profile that the councillor was part of the film society that met every Thursday in the local cinema.
In this case councillors are advised to:
Be careful about personal information posted online. This advice includes information posted on social media platforms but also on other websites. You can perform an internet search of your name to see what information about you is already in the public domain and remove it where possible.
Well-designed council websites can help councillors by clearly pointing out how and when councillors can be contacted using formal means. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, councillors do not have to include their home address on the council website, nor does it have to be published in the register of interests. Councillors in England can apply for a dispensation from their Monitoring Officer to keep their address private on the public interests register.
Additionally, it is advisable to delete from social media any personal details such as personal home number, date of birth, home address, vehicle details and or details about family members. Councillors are advised to avoid posting on social media regular “check-ins” that can help perpetrators map out a councillor’s routine.
Send a clear message
Councillors experiencing offensive, threatening, intimidating, racist, homophobic, sexist or other discriminatory and derogatory remarks are advised to keep calm and inform the perpetrator that their conduct is inappropriate, if it safe to do so. Councillors in this position are within their rights to bring phone calls, meetings, online communications or discussions to an end. Be firm, clear and stop engaging with the perpetrator.
Take for example:
A resident approaches a councillor – who is well known in the community for their activism in the LGBTQ+ community – in the street to discuss council matters. Quickly the discussion escalates, and the resident starts making gender-based and homophobic comments aimed to undermine the position of the councillor and their ability to make unbiased decisions. The councillor is angry as such allegations are really unfair. However, the councillor takes a deep breath and calmly indicates to the resident that they feel their behaviour is intimidatory. The councillor firmly indicates to the resident that the discussion at an end and recommends they make an appointment to discuss the issue further when they feel calmer. The councillor also indicates that they will not tolerate abuse and threats and that if this persists, they will make a report to the police.
This type of threatening behaviour can also happen in phone calls, letters, social media communications or emails. Some suggestions for a clear and assertive message include:
Staying calm. Councillors facing this type of behaviour should first ensure that they are safe and then, calmly try to ascertain what the resident’s complaint is. It is also advisable to record the conversation using a mobile phone or recording devise and inform the perpetrator that the call or conversation is being recorded.
When dealing with threatening, intimidatory or abusive behaviour councillors are advised to avoid direct counterattacks. Counterattacks are rarely the answer and will only escalate the conflict even further. Instead, councillors could try keeping calm and inquiring about the resident’s needs and alternatives. This information can be helpful to determine the nature of their behaviour, if an area of possible agreement exists or decide to leave the environment in which the exchange is taking place. Most intimidatory behaviour is an attempt to gain control, but no control can be gained if engagement is refused.
Set and maintain high standards. All councillors must follow a code of conduct to protect the democratic role of councillors, encourage good conduct and safeguard the public’s trust in local government.
Each nation has its own councillor code of conduct: in England, the LGA has developed a model code for local adaptation; in Wales there is a statutory code; in Scotland the code is approved by the Scottish Parliament and applies to all councillors; and in Northern Ireland each council adopts the same code:
- England, via the LGA Model Councillor Code of Conduct
- Wales Statutory Model Code and Guidance from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
- Scotland – The Standards Commission for Scotland
- Northern Ireland
Councillors are advised to point out to other councillors and residents the relevant codes of conduct and establish what they consider to be appropriate engagement in all setting. For example, by using the rules of engagement mentioned earlier for social media, providing residents with these rules via email before a meeting and having them printed out and displayed at ward surgeries. This can be a useful as a tool to remind all participants of what is and is not acceptable behaviour and consequences for any abuse, harassment and intimidation.
Other general principles for safety and wellbeing
It is advised that events of harassment, abuse and intimidation are written in a diary as soon as possible after the event. Councillors’ records should include the event, date, time and a list of possible witnesses. They will be useful to make the council aware of any potential threats and patterns of intimidation and also to report to the police if it is needed.
Verbal communications and phone calls can be easily recorded with recording machines or mobile phones. Threats on social media or email can be saved or screen-shotted. Instances of stalking can be recorded with CCTV footage or with photographs, but only if councillors feel safe to do so.
In all cases, if it is safe, councillors are advised to take note of the name of the perpetrator, their contact details (if known) and description.
Experiencing psychological abuse, physical abuse and intimidation can have significant emotional consequences for councillors, their family and friends. It is important that family and friends also receive support to work through any emotional needs that arise from councillor’s experience of abuse and intimidation.
Talking to family and friends about feelings and experiences is a good way of dealing with the emotional consequences of psychological abuse. Speaking with councillors from different parties in different geographical locations may also help as they will be able to give different perspectives and ideas on how to improve feelings of safety. Parties, and your council may be able to facilitate mentor or buddy relationships or other support as necessary. Some councillors find it useful to disconnect from social media, email and other forms of communication while at home, after working hours or during weekends.
Useful information for victims of abuse and intimidation as well as general well-being and mental health advise can be found via organisations such as Victim Support (Home – Victim Support) and Mind (Home – Mind). If councillors feel their well-being is being affected, it may be appropriate to contact local GP and mental health services or seek professional therapy, although there is a cost associated with seeking non-NHS therapies.
Even if this is the first or only incident, other councillors may have been the subject of intimidation as well. By sharing, councillors will be contributing to creating a collective record that can help improve the safety of other councillors and may facilitate taking future action if it is required.
People experience things differently and have different thresholds. Just because a colleague isn’t affected by something doesn’t mean it’s not an issue and you should seek independent advice if you are concerned.
If you feel unsafe, communicate and report the incident to the police and the council.
 Krook, Mona Lena. 2020. Violence against Women in Politics, Oxford University Press, 256 pages
 Zetterberg, Pär & Elin Bjarnegård. In Press.” Psychological Violence”, in Elin Bjarnegård and Pär Zetterberg (eds.), Gender and Violence against Political Actors. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press