Rising life or death calls wreak havoc among domestic violence crisis line workers

In a typical day, Araujo said, she would receive two or three crisis line calls from people desperate for help and fearing for their lives after being attacked or receiving death threats with a gun or other weapon. She sometimes accompanied callers to the hospital, sitting with them as doctors examined their injuries for possible long-term effects.

“I would come home and just go over to my husband, who was holding me, and I was just crying a little bit because some days it’s really heavy,” Araujo said. “I have to keep a strong forehead while I’m at work, keep my emotions in check. And then when I get home I have to be able to let them out.”

Araujo was not isolated in her experience: Staff from local domestic violence organizations in Oregon, Maine, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and the District of Columbia told NBC News that they had also seen an increase in more urgent calls from people at risk of death during the pandemic, often resulting in unmanageable stress levels and burnout for workers.

Leila Wood, a social work researcher and associate professor in the medical branch of the University of Texas, who has studied stress among direct service staff who work with domestic violence survivors, said the stress that direct service workers are already feeling in their high impact jobs, compounded by pandemic barriers they might face, such as isolation and financial constraints, could lead to long-term psychological and emotional challenges, such as burnout or secondary traumatic stress. She explained that burnout is like burnout, feeling unemployed, depersonalizing and “not seeing clients as dynamic people so much because you are so exhausted and exhausted.” She said secondary traumatic stress can include symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, constantly brooding and worrying about clients’ plight and “bringing home work.”

“One thing that is important to remember is… for frontline defenders, they are in contact with partners who use violence, who come to the scene, and there are real security threats, if you work in an emergency shelter. “Wood said.” So some of that anxiety isn’t actually secondary traumatic stress or burnout. These are real adaptive security issues. “

Beds at the Noah Project in Abilene, Texas. Nitashia Johnson for NBC News
Diapers and children’s clothing at the Noah Project. Nitashia Johnson for NBC News

Wendy Arias, customer service lawyer with Domestic Violence Victim Support, said she was in “Go, go, go for about three, four months” mode when the pandemic started, but when the increased emergencies, life-or-death calls continued with no apparent end, she began to feel the brunt of the workload, experiencing bouts of anxiety and fatigue which she categorized as exhaustion professional. She tried to relax after work but couldn’t get away from the overwhelming feelings.

“At first I was like ‘Oh man, I’m not sleeping well’,” Arias said. “But the moment I started to notice the tendency for this to be long term, for weeks at a time, months at a time, I was like, ‘OK, this is something from something else. . “”

AVDA is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal representation to survivors of domestic violence in Texas. AVDA is not a crisis line, but Arias always responds to calls from domestic violence survivors. She said she may have received a few life-threatening calls a month before the pandemic, but now receives them every day.

“Everyone in the world was going through the pandemic, including social workers and advocates, so it was quite difficult to adjust to their personal and professional life,” Arias said.

Wood led a study, published in December in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence, which found that 85% of survey respondents, all of whom work with domestic violence survivors, reported increased work stress related to the pandemic. The study also indicated that burnout and secondary traumatic stress contributes to the turnover of domestic violence organizations, which Wood told NBC News could affect client services.

Mikisha Hooper, who heads the Texas Council on Family Violence’s annual report on intimate partner homicides, said there had been a 22% increase in all intimate partner deaths in Texas from 2019 to 2020, attributing in part of the increase to “pandemic conditions” including isolation and economic stressors. With the increase in crisis lines and death rates, workers are finding it harder to cope, often resulting in a sense of personal responsibility.

In addition to the increase in life and death calls, the crisis lines had to go deeper during the pandemic. Peggy Whilde, director of staff support and welfare at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said advocates recently reported feeling an increased sense of urgency, possibly leading to feelings of distress as they began to receive more calls from people with issues unrelated to domestic violence.

“Advocates believe that the number of people who contact us are in much higher crisis levels or contact us for non-intimate violence issues involving psychotic symptoms, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts because they don’t ‘have no other economic and mental health resources at their disposal,’ said Whilde.

There is something organizations can do to help manage high worker stress levels: offer paid time off, encourage workers to take time off, and provide proper training and peer support, Wood said.

“Organizations can do a lot with little or no money to help advocates,” said Wood.

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