The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233

By Rachel DeSantis
March 24, 2020 02:13 PM
Arman Zhenikeyev/Getty

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to confine people to their homes amid calls for self-isolation and social distancing, many survivors of domestic violence have found themselves in situations experts say could have a “devastating” impact on their health and safety.

Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence — and the spread of the virus has experts worried abuse will increase, Dr. Amanda Stylianou, the quality improvement director at Rutgers University’s Behavioral Health Care center, tells PEOPLE.

“I think that the fear of coronavirus is something that abusers are using really as a means to control victims,” she says.

One example of what the control might look like? “Threatening to throw the victim out of the home in a time of crisis,” says Stylianou.

To make matters worse, survivors and victims who previously depended on their social connectedness as a lifeline have now been directly cut off from those protective factors, and might find themselves without additional support.

RELATED VIDEO: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall Reveals Her Personal Connection to Domestic Violence: ‘It Affects Everybody’

“A lot of times people are able to escape the house until things calm down [when there’s violence]. [They] go to a neighbor’s, go to a family member’s to just get out of the house for the day,” says Stylianou. “Sometimes that distance is an important kind of safety tool that survivors use, and that’s not really an option right now for many survivors.”

The stress the outbreak has placed upon finances also poses a burden, namely for those who have recently left an abusive relationship and are struggling to stay afloat solo.

“In a time where it’s very possible that you’re losing your job, and where you have financial uncertainty looking forward, we’ve heard from many survivors that they’re returning to the abusers because they feel like they’re facing this battle between kind of physical safety and financial safety,” Stylianou says.

RELATED: 7 Warning Signs Someone Is the Victim of Domestic Violence

Yet another impact of the virus’ spread appears to be that victims and survivors living in isolation are less likely to reach out for help.

“In times where they might have said, ‘OK, I can’t take this anymore and I need to leave,’ or, ‘I need to talk to someone,’ there’s that kind of moment now in this crisis of saying, ‘Okay, can I really do that? Are people going to be available? Where would I go? I can’t leave my house,’” says Stylianou.

Because of circumstances like this, and because of added stress and pressure in homes with a history of abuse, she says experts know that abuse is likely to increase in situations like the current outbreak, which has infected 43,499 people and killed at least 537 in the United States as of Tuesday afternoon, according to The New York Times.

Despite the hesitation to reach out, organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) still have people manning the phones 24/7 and offering help to those who need it, from arranging shelter placements to offering free and confidential chat lines.

RELATED: Drew Carey Calls for Change in Domestic Violence Laws Following the Death of His Ex-Fianceé

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) also encourages those who need help but are unable to speak safely to text LOVEIS to 22522.

RAINN (800-656-4673) even shared a recent Twitter thread geared toward those concerned about being in close quarters with their abusers, and offered several strategies people may find helpful.

Those include making a list of supportive people to have regular check-ins with via phone or video chat, taking breaks outside while maintain social distancing, making note of which places in the home are easy to get in and out of during a conflict, creating a code word to share with your support network to signal you need immediate help, making and hiding an “escape bag” containing necessities, and being gentle with yourself.

For those wondering how they can help, Stylianou says reaching out to loved ones and lending an ear can make a difference.

“It’s so clear how strong the advocacy movement is in this country,” she says. “Even in this time of crisis, there are thousands of people across the country still talking, still really building coalitions to say, we need to be here. We need to be available for survivors, and how are we going to make that happen, even throughout this crisis? That, I think, has been really powerful to watch, [to see] the nation mobilize that way.”

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.

Advertisement