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Why this pandemic has given rise to family violence

Originally published in The Tennessean, July 2020

As a pediatrician, I chose this profession to help children grow up to be healthy, happy and productive adults. I believe that is an important goal for all of us to pursue in our communities. Today, we face a challenge to this goal unlike any I’ve seen in my career.

One of the many unfortunate results of the COVID-19 pandemic is the uptick in family violence against spouses, partners and children.

The Tennessean reported that between March 1 and 30, 2020, calls to domestic violence hotline operated by the Nashville YMCA increased by 31% over the same period last year. In Chattanooga during that same period, domestic violence reports increased 24% from 2019. Conversely, reports of suspected child abuse in Tennessee have actually fallen in recent months, though this is not necessarily a good thing. These reports often come from teachers, but they have not seen or spoken with their students in months.

Reasons for the rise

Recent studies have shown increases in anger, post-traumatic stress disorder and even substance abuse among those quarantined. These mental health changes can escalate and manifest as physical abuse directed at loved ones.

Several factors have contributed to this very real threat to public health. The significant changes to our routines as we follow social distancing guidelines and safety protocols have led to isolation for many Tennesseans. In families, there may be additional stress caused by working from home, caring for children, and either assisting them with school or keeping them occupied during the summer months. Families are also affected by financial concerns and job loss, as well as loss of social connections and activities.

The risk for this violence remains high even as testing and awareness increase and more safety measures are mandated. As COVID-19 cases surge throughout southern states in particular, the everyday stressors so many of us face remain unabated.

Families may face additional stress if family or friends become ill. But on top of that, schools may remain closed this fall, virtual learning may continue, and that debate is ongoing in plain sight. Children often respond to stress and loss of usual routine with changes in behavior — like acting out,  tantrums, withdrawal, tearfulness, sleep difficulties — and may not understand why they feel this way. Parents or caregivers may misunderstand these behaviors as intentional, when they really are symptoms of stress.

Family violence is an adverse childhood experience, or ACE, that can lead to chronic health problems  — witnessing and experiencing violence are both impactful. As citizens, we all have a duty to report suspected child abuse. And we all must do our part to stop this violence before it starts.

What we can we do to identify and stop domestic violence

Having a set daily schedule can be very reassuring to children. Help them find ways to express their feelings, like through drawing or writing, and limit their news exposure. Keep them connected to their friends through letter writing and video chats. Praise good behavior.

Take steps to maintain your mental health, too. As a parent or caregiver, keep a consistent sleep schedule, and take time to exercise and eat healthy foods. Practice these habits with your children.

Perhaps most importantly, recognize when you begin to become stressed, and stop, count to 10, take a break, and breathe slowly and deliberately to interrupt the urge to shout or, worse, become violent.

At BlueCross, we can connect our members to resources like local community mental health centers and health departments to help with anger, stress and depression. We can all offer support by keeping lines of communication open via phone and video.

Remember, our physical, mental, and spiritual health are intertwined — reaching out for help is a sign of strength and love for those around us, not a weakness. 

If you or a loved one is in need of support, call the Tennessee Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-356-6767 or the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877-237-0004 to speak with a trained counselor, 24/7.

About Dr. Jeanne James, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, BlueCare Tennessee

A photo of the authorDr. James works closely with medical professionals to share current data and improve care for members of BlueCare, a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee subsidiary that provides quality health care products, services and information for government programs.

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