American Psychological Association
How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse: National crises ramp up stress among couples and families. Psychologists identify the risks and point to resources that can help.
As the nation grapples with the spread of COVID-19, Americans are being told to go home and stay there, for their safety and everyone else’s. But for victims and survivors of domestic violence, including children exposed to it, being home may not be a safe option — and the unprecedented stress of the pandemic could breed unsafety in homes where violence may not have been an issue before.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime— and the risks to victims are severe. CDC data link intimate partner violence with an increased risk of injury and death. About 41% of female intimate partner violence survivors and 14% of male intimate partner violence survivors sustain a physical injury from their abusers, and about 1 in 6 homicide victims are killed by their intimate partners.
Violence in the home can also lead to adverse health and mental health outcomes, including a higher risk of chronic disease, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and risky sexual and substance use behaviors.
Now, experts worry that all these numbers could increase dramatically during this period of social distancing and quarantine. Psychologist Josie Serrata, PhD, a research and evaluation consultant and co-owner of Prickly Pear Therapy and Training, has found in her research that stress and social isolation can raise the risk of domestic violence. Increased risk
In her 2019 study (PDF, 1,56MB)on how Hurricane Harvey affected families that had already experienced domestic violence, Serrata found the stress associated with the disaster led to higher rates of both domestic violence and child abuse during and after the hurricane. “We found social factors that put people more at risk for violence are reduced access to resources, increased stress due to job loss or strained finances, and disconnection from social support systems,” Serrata says. “With this pandemic, we’re seeing similar things happen, which unfortunately leads to circumstances that can foster violence.”
“Being on lockdown, having fewer choices, having other people make large life choices for you, like when you can leave the house — these things replicate the trauma that some LGBTQ people have experienced both in their relationships and as members of oppressed and marginalized groups,” Lippy says.
Those in sexual and gender minority communities, and especially sexual and gender minorities of color, are disproportionately more likely to be homeless or unstably housed, have disabilities and be un- or underemployed. These stressors, Lippy says, compounded with the stress of the pandemic, could increase the risk of partner violence.
Many organizations that serve sexual and gender minority survivors of domestic violence may also struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic.
“From an organizational standpoint, it’s hard to stay on top of all the changing services and resources available during COVID-19, especially ones appropriate for LGBTQ communities,” Lippy says. “Many culturally specific organizations have been historically underfunded, so it has been harder for us to quickly transition to providing remote services and programs for survivors.”
Risks for children
Children are also especially vulnerable to abuse during the pandemic, says child psychologist Yo Jackson, PhD, associate director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State. Research shows that increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children, she says.
“Even parents who have great child management skills and great bonds with their kids are going to be tested,” saysJackson. “There’s a perfect storm happening in millions of homes for kids to be at greater risk for these negative interactions. “
The financial strain many Americans are experiencing due to business and other closures will also put children in many homes at a greater risk of abuse and neglect, says Amy Damashek, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Western Michigan University who studies child maltreatment. Many of these families may also not have access to the technology needed for children to stay connected with friends and extended family, which Damashek presents as another risk factor.
To add to the tension, children are also experiencing their own stress and uncertainty about the pandemic. Stressed parents may be more likely to respond to their children’s anxious behaviors or demands in aggressive or abusive ways.
All parents should be focusing on keeping their stress as low as possible right now, such as by talking walks or limiting their media exposure, say Jackson and Damashek. “Anything that reduces stress can reduce the risk for abuse and neglect,” Damashek says.
Jackson recommends prioritizing self-care and taking a break from parenting duties whenever possible to lessen the risk of lashing out at a child. While it’s important for parents to attune to their children’s needs, they need to attune to their own needs as well.
“The only way for you to reduce the risk of violence against children is to take care of yourself,” says Jackson. “There are no super parents; only parents who are more tuned in and connected to themselves.”
To help these vulnerable populations during the pandemic, psychologists and social service organizations are banding together to provide emergency domestic violence and child abuse resources in response to the expected rise in cases. Psychologist J. Gayle Beck, PhD, director of The Athena Project, a research clinic at the University of Memphis that provides free mental health services to domestic violence survivors, says organizations in her area are continually communicating about which shelters are open or closed, who has room for more women, and providing resources to organizations that may be understaffed or underfunded.
“Every abuse victim’s situation is slightly different, so finding resources for people that match their needs and situations is taking a lot of communication between organizations,” says Beck. “It’s all getting us ready for when things become a bit more complicated.”
Beck also encourages clinicians to adopt a long-term view and be prepared for an uptick in demand for care and social services related to domestic violence and child abuse. The country may not feel the full weight of the ramifications of the pandemic for months or years to come. “We all need to be vigilant and mindful that our clientele may have increased mental health issues as a result of domestic violence,” she says.
Other health-care providers should also be on the lookout for patients potentially in crisis. In several European countries, those in abusive situations are being told by the government to report the abuse to their local pharmacist, using the code word “mask 19” if they can’t speak openly.
If you or a loved one needs help for a domestic abuse situation, consider these resources:
National Domestic Hotline | (800) 799-7233
Crisis Text Line | Text HOME to 741741
Abramson, A. (2020, April 8). How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse. http://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/domestic-violence-child-abuse.
Date created: April 8, 2020
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