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As stress, anxiety rise so does domestic abuse risk

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing safer at home orders were put in place nationwide, an uptick of domestic violence related calls have been reported by abuse centers.

According to Dr. Maclen Stanley, writing for Psychology Today, a large part of the reason such an uptick has been seen is from fear of the unknown which stems from COVID-19. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes have a relatively reliable timeline from the moment disaster strikes to when they end, and it’s easier to tell who will be affected based on location. A virus on the other hand has no known path, and it is nearly impossible to track its spread.

“With viral pandemics, we are often left in an ongoing state of risk and worry, triggering an overexposure of the stress hormone cortisol,” Stanley explained. “Elevations in stress hormones have long been associated with increased aggression.”

To make already stressful circumstances worse, the economic stutter and related unemployment can lead to tense moments between those living in constant close proximity to one another, especially without much opportunity to get out of the house. With this lack of solitude, victims can have a difficult time reaching out for help without their abusers noticing, which has the potential to brew a dangerous situation.

“During a public health crisis, social distancing is meant to keep everyone ‘safer at home.’ However, home is not a safe place for everyone,” said Courtney Scholl, co-director of Stepping Stones, a domestic abuse relief agency in Medford. “People facing abuse may encounter additional risks as they spend more time at home with their perpetrators. With less privacy, it can be harder to reach out for help.”

Scholl advised it’s best to keep communication open but not to push anybody to talk directly about abuse if they don’t want to, but to let them know you’re there for them if they need you.

Megan Kestler, crisis case manager at Stepping Stones, said those who recently sought their services attributed increased stress levels to COVID-19, financial difficulties related to recent unemployment, and even things as seemingly simple as having their children home constantly. She said stress doesn’t directly cause domestic violence, but exacerbates “existing unhealthy behaviors” and can lead to “violence [worsening] or happening more often.”

Further amplifying violent behavior and abusive tendencies, a study published by Associated Press in conjunction with Nielsen research firm revealed that U.S. online alcohol sales jumped a massive 243% since the COVID-19 shutdowns. It’s not low proof alcohol that’s being purchased either, rather the complete opposite: sales of gin and tequila lead the way, while wine and beer straggle behind hard spirits.

“For relationships already marred with violence and abuse, alcohol adds fuel to the fire, particularly when coupled with the isolation and stress,” said Stanley.

Stanley also pointed towards the recent unemployment surge and joblessness as largely responsible for why someone might begin to abuse their family, as they may believe they’re losing their position of respect.

“A perceived threat to the masculine identity undergirds the relationship between economic anxiety and intimate partner violence,” he said. “When masculinity is threatened, for example, by job loss and the perceived failure to ‘provide,’ abusers respond with violence in order to regain a sense of power and control in their relationships.”

According to Scholl, Stepping Stones has been providing services to a lower number of individuals than average right now, but hotline calls are “dramatically increasing.” Even though less people are seeking services, they saw a jump in those needing shelter. From the time between when the safer at home orders were implemented on March 25 to a month and a half later on May 15, they experienced an 86% increase in those seeking shelter compared to the same time last year.

Normally these abuse victims would be put into an emergency shelter, but an increase in Stepping Stones’ funding has allowed them to provide more security deposits and rental assistance, leading to a 49% decrease in those who have to stay in shelters.

Additionally, they’ve bought gas for vehicles, paid utility bills, provided emotional and legal support, and purchased groceries for those in need, with services open and available. In total, Stepping Stones funded $8,717.36 worth of housing assistance over the past few months, a huge relief for those who need to escape horrible relationships, because as Scholl pointed out, “It is not uncommon for people to leave relationships with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

The housing funds couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as the often dorm-style shelters face health concerns amidst the pandemic, leading to an increased need for sanitary living conditions.

Scholl said it is paramount to recognize and understand signs of abuse, particularly during these harrowing times.

Social and Health Services present many signs to be wary of in those around you: being emotionally upset or agitated, being extremely withdrawn and non communicative or non responsive, unusual behavior usually attributed to dementia such as rocking back and forth or biting, nervousness around certain people, a vulnerable adult’s sudden change in behavior, a partner’s/caregiver’s refusal to allow visitors to see a vulnerable person alone, controlling financial assets, and more.

Some perpetrators have utilized COVID-19 as an instrument of abuse, with the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) reporting several instances across the U.S.

One caller mentioned their abuser was using COVID-19 as a scare tactic to keep them away from their children. Another said the perpetrator was using the virus as an excuse to keep them away from family. A healthcare provider living in an abusive household said they were physically abused at night because their abuser thought they were trying to intentionally infect them with the coronavirus.

NDVH suggests if you’re experiencing any abuse to create a safety plan with the help of professionals, such as those at Stepping Stones or NDVH. There is no one form of abuse, so it’s important plans are tailored for specifi c situations. For example, Scholl suggested coming up with a secret code or symbol you can easily send to someone, such as a quick one character text, if you need them to contact law enforcement for you.

“There are many forms of abuse: using coercion and threats, using intimidation, using emotional abuse, using isolation, minimizing/denying and blaming, using children, using male privilege, and using economic abuse,” Scholl explained. “All types of abuse can be devastating and traumatic to victims/survivors, and all people experience trauma differently. Trauma can seriously impact a survivor’s mental and physical well-being, so it is important for survivors to know that help is available.”