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Centring women in research and practice – and a bit about my PhD

Centring women in research and practice – and a bit about my PhD

Many of you might know that I am in my second year of my PhD at Deakin University within IPAN (Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition) which has been a dream / goal of mine for more years than I care to mention.  These last few weeks have been really interesting (read: challenging) for me because I’ve been taking part in a few different (read: unusual) activities where I have had to summarise in non-academic language the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ behind my research in presentations and on camera.  And, because my PhD is so closely bound up with my own lived experiences and also in response to the countless women that I have worked with over the years, every day that I sit in session with clients my research is reinforced and every day I am conducting research, the work I do with clients is reinforced.  But I don’t think I’ve ever spelled it out in this blog.  I’ve hinted at it.  I’ve referenced it in some of my Instagram stories (click HERE).  But I’ve never written it down and shared it in this space.

First up, remember the context is really important.  Women’s mental health, like most parts of medicine and research more broadly has been overlooked as part of the general ‘gender blindness’ that historically considers that a typical patient (for both medication and treatment purposes) is a white, male weighing 80kgs.  (If you want to read a great book on this check out Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.)  This does women a disservice on many levels: biological, hormonal, social, economic, and gender roles, as well as having differing responses to mental health treatments.

As a reminder, globally, women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from mental illness. (1) There are a whole bunch of considerations behind that figure, some of which are related to the longstanding understanding that women are more likely to reach out for help around their mental health.  But there are also a range of economic and biopsychosocial factors behind this headline.  I’d like to share a few quite staggering statistics (all Australian) to add to this:

  • Women report consistently higher levels of psychological distress than men. (2)
  • Women are almost twice as likely to experience mood disorders (i.e., depression and bipolar disorder). (3)
  • Females are more like to experience anxiety disorders. (4)
  • Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. (5)
  • Women are hospitalised for intentional self-harm at almost twice the rate of men. (6)
  • Women are more likely to attempt suicide than men. (7)
  • 95% of hospitalisation for an eating disorder are for women. (8)

Now this has to be set within an appreciation that there are a whole bunch of societal, systematic and historic issues that position women as ‘hysterical’, ‘irrational’, ‘emotional’ and ‘hormonal’. (See THIS brilliant reel from @ilovefarideh for the energy behind this, and listen to THIS podcast with Dr Lisa Mosconi to understand some of what I’m referencing with a menopause / brain health focus.)

So, with all that in mind, my PhD seeks to explore an alternative / adjunctive approach to supporting the mental and physical health, wellbeing and recovery from intimate partner violence (IPV) – specifically by developing a co-designed trauma-informed cardio-boxing program.  And as I’ve explained, I wear a number of hats: I’m a PhD candidate, a practicing Psychotherapist with a special interest in trauma, and I’m also a victim-survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV) – one of the most common forms of gender-based violence (GBV) across the world. Globally, 1 in 3 women are likely to experience some form of GBV in their lifetime, 1 in 4 will experience a form of IPV. (9)  GBV is related to a range of behaviours associated with control within relationships, which disproportionately impact women, girls and populations within the LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual and other sexually or gender diverse) community.

It’s important to understand the definitions because if we don’t understand those, how do we know when it’s happening to us, when to get help and for those of us researching in this space how best to create effective programs and interventions that support victim-survivors. IPV doesn’t have to involve physical violence / abuse. According to the World Health Organization, IPV refers to any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes sexual, psychological or physical harm and can include:

  • Sexual coercion / rape
  • Psychological / emotional abuse
  • Acts of physical aggression
  • Financial abuse
  • Coercively controlling behaviours

It covers current and former spouses / partners and doesn’t have to occur within the home – which is why I prefer the term IPV over ‘domestic violence’.

My personal and professional experiences have taught me that one of the biggest issues facing victim-survivors is accessing the right support, at the right time from the right place and person. It’s hard to open up to people and getting good help (trauma-focused) is expensive and takes time. Something that helped me was moving my body. I swam, ran, did yoga and I lifted heavy things. For me it was an accessible and safe way to move through some of my pain.  These experiences, combined with my previous work as a health and fitness coach for women who had experienced traumatic childbirth, made me wonder about trauma-informed exercise for victim-survivors. There’s some great research around trauma-informed yoga (I know many of you will have read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk) – I’ve been in some of these amazing classes – but as one of my wise teachers once told me, sometimes you just can’t ‘OM’ out trauma.

Which made me curious about other forms of exercise where we could move our bodies harder, sweatier, faster? And what about a type of exercise where it was actually okay to embody all the big angry, hurt, scared feelings that come with IPV – like cardio-boxing?

So that’s the ‘why’ behind my PhD. In terms of the ‘how’, well it’s going to be a collaborative process. Firstly, I’ll be interviewing victim-survivors and different professionals who support them in their recovery.  I want to know what would make our program safe for participants AND translatable into the real world where it can really make a difference. Those insights will inform the design and delivery of the pilot program I’ll run next year – where we’ll get to test the impact of our trauma-informed cardio-boxing program on the mental and physical recovery of victim-survivors.  We’re just waiting on ethics approval and then we’ll start recruiting for the first studies – the qualitative interviews with victim-survivors and professionals who support them – so watch this space / share with your friends and colleagues.

Sadly, my PhD won’t end GBV, but by co-creating a trauma-informed cardio-boxing program for women who have already experienced IPV, it will go some way to supporting victim-survivors like me, and the 1 in 4 women just like me.


If you’d like to explore your mental health and would like a space to talk about how you’re feeling, please get in touch with us: / / 03 9077 8194.



  1. Yu S. (2018). Uncovering the hidden impacts of inequality on mental health: a global study. Translat Psychiatr. 2018;8: 98.
  2. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, Suicide & self-harm monitoring [Website], Psychological distress, Available at: URL. Visited 10 February 2021.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
  5. Olff M. (2017). Sex and gender differences in post-traumatic stress disorder: an update. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 8(sup4), 1351204.
  6. This includes hospitalisations for self-harm both with and without suicidal intent. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, Suicide & self-harm monitoring [Website], Deaths by suicide over time, Available at: URL. Visited 10 February 2021.
  7. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, Suicide & self-harm monitoring [Website], Deaths by suicide over time, Available at: URL. Visited 10 February 2021.
  8. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (2018). Australia’s health 2018, Chapter 3.13, p 2.
  9. World Health Organization (2024) Available at: URL.

(Data sourced from