How to help victims during the COVID-19 global pandemic
Across the world, people are spending a lot more time at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt about it, shelter in place orders and closures of schools, public places, and businesses have put extra stress on families in terms of adapting to working/learning at home and/or being an essential worker, childcare needs, unemployment concerns, and health complications. Economic uncertainty and social isolation have also been linked to increased substance abuse and mental health issues. While these worries apply to everyone, these stressors and negative effects have been exacerbated for abuse victims, particularly those who are currently living in an abusive environment, where spending extra time at home can lead to even more danger, with few outlets for escape. Abusers may take advantage of stay at home guidelines to further control and isolate their partners. Now more than ever, abuse victims need our care and help. Below, some ideas will be offered for helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as well as ways to support community resources for abuse survivors during these challenging times.
- How to cope with past or current abuse
If you are an abuse survivor, the pandemic (and its accompanying stress and isolation) has likely magnified adverse effects on your physical and psychological health.
- If you need immediate help, confidential crisis hotlines are available 24 hours, 7 days a week, every day of the year, across the world. In the Springfield, Illinois area, Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault’s hotline number is 1-217-753-8081, and Sojourn Shelter and Service’s hotline number is 1-217-726-5200. On a national level, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). There are options readily available to protect you, even during the global pandemic. Emergency shelters as well as counseling are accessible, and while fear of contracting COVID-19 is a real concern, shelters are taking extra precautions to keep their residents safe and practicing social distancing. Orders of protection are also obtainable in many jurisdictions through remote means. Help is just a call away, and even though it may sometimes seem like it, you are not alone.
- Your physical and psychological health is a priority. While face-to-face appointments may not always be possible right now, many counselors and psychologists are instead offering remote mental health counseling, and some doctors are holding telehealth appointments in addition to office appointments. Don’t be reluctant to schedule appointments, as these virtual meetings may offer you a chance to get the necessary help and support.
- Contact your family members, friends, and other members of your support groups. They care about you and want to help however they can. Share what you are going through, and don’t be afraid to ask them for help.
- How to help others who are in an abusive situation
If you believe a friend, family member, or neighbor is being abused, it can be challenging to know what to do or how best to help, and the pandemic has just increased these feelings of uncertainty.
- If you are worried about someone, don’t hesitate to reach out to them and let them know you care about them. Given social distancing guidelines, lack of personal interaction has increased loneliness and disconnection, which may make victimization even harder to talk about. A reminder that they are not alone might mean the world to them. However, be aware that if they are currently being abused, their abusive partner may be monitoring their calls and use of social media, which may limit their ability to disclose details about their situation and reach out for help. Because of this, you may need to be discrete in how you broach the topic in order to offer your friend protection and privacy.
- If your friend or family member opens up to you about the abuse they have experienced, make sure they feel supported by you. Most importantly, listen to them, and affirm that you believe them and that the abuse is not their fault.
- Ask them what they need help with, and when possible, provide that help. For example, you can share hotline numbers with them (see above). Given that they may currently be in an abusive situation and monitored by their abuser, they may not be able to directly call the hotline or the police for help. If you feel it might be helpful, you could offer to make that call on their behalf. However, remember that they may not be ready or able to leave, as the pandemic has increased economic hardships and fears about leaving the house. Offer to help them figure out a safety plan for themselves (and their children and pets), and again, reassure them that you are available to help them.
- How to encourage and support community resources for victims
Nonprofit agencies can always use help, but especially during these uncertain times.
- If you are able, monetary donations to your local domestic violence shelter and/or rape crisis center are of great need now. Often times, these agencies also have wish lists of what they need in order to best serve clients, but please check with the specific agency prior to dropping off items, as they may have changed their policies and may not be able to accept certain items for donation due to health concerns. According to Angela Bertoni, Chief Executive Officer of Sojourn Shelter and Services in Springfield, community members can help by “donating masks (homemade, cloth and disposable), cleaning supplies (hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes), various other supplies (toilet paper, paper towels, etc.), shelf-stable food, and monetary donations. It will be critical to continue to get these supplies, which will enable us to safely serve those desperately trying to escape their violent environments.” Catherine Walters, Executive Director of Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault in Springfield, states that “paper towels, hand sanitizer, hand soap in dispensers, and gas cards in any denomination” would be very helpful. In addition, cash donations would enable PCASA to “start a COVID crisis fund for survivors who have lost their jobs or have no childcare.”
- Consider in the future volunteering your time for a victim service agency. For example, in the Springfield area, both Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault and Sojourn Shelter and Services hold volunteer training sessions on a regular basis. Volunteers are vital to victim service agencies’ abilities to serve their missions of helping victims and engaging the community.
- In general, be careful not to spread misinformation and myths about domestic violence and sexual assault, as belief in these myths can lead to blaming victims and excusing offender behavior. It is on all of us to know the facts about victimization and support victims.
For more information on obtaining help, donating, and/or volunteering in the Springfield and/or Illinois area, see the following websites.
- Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault
- Sojourn Shelter and Services
- Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault
- Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence
In conclusion, the COVID-19 global pandemic has led to increased stress and anxiety for most people for a variety of reasons, however these tensions have been magnified for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Angela Bertoni, Chief Executive Officer of Sojourn Shelter and Services, expects that “once the shelter in place is lifted…(Sojourn) will be overwhelmed with calls and requests for services like we have never seen before,” highlighting the need to continue to support victim service agencies. Hopefully, the suggestions above might be useful to either you or someone you care for. We’re all in this together, and it is more important than ever to reach out to those who are suffering and support victim services during these unprecedented times.
Dr. Leanne Brecklin is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UIS. She earned her Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her areas of specialization are: Victimization, gender and crime, research methods and statistics, rape prevention.
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