UC Davis researcher finds stress is correlated with increased rates of intimate partner violence during the pandemic

UC Davis researcher finds stress is correlated with increased rates of intimate partner violence during the pandemic

Photo Credits: North Hall at UC Davis. (Photo by Quinn Spooner / Aggie)

Resources such as CARE and Empower YOLO are available to offer free services to survivors

The initial COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 forced the world into a new isolated way of living where many Americans have dealt with job loss, housing insecurity and financial hardship. Recently published studies conducted by UC Davis Professor Clare Cannon and colleagues suggest that these stressors may be behind the increased rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) reported during the pandemic. 

“When COVID-19 happened, my colleagues […] and I got together to do research about stress resilience and intimate partner violence during the pandemic,” Cannon said. “We were interested in what stressors might be brought on by the pandemic that might exacerbate intimate partner violence. We have research that indicates IPV is on the rise during the pandemic. We set out to try to understand what were the push and pull factors.”

The researchers used validated scales to measure perceived stress and resilience, finding that as reported stress levels are up, resilience is down. Specifically, their data revealed that nutritional stress, income stress and rental stress were all higher in the group reporting intimate partner violence. Cannon said that they were surprised to discover that reliance on friends and neighbors was negatively associated with resilience which is atypical for disasters. 

“There’s something unique about COVID,” Cannon said. “We argue that as an infectious disease characterized by the spread of contagion, that if you think you are going to need help from friends, family, neighbors then you are going to be less resilient. Because if you need help from those people, they can also infect you.”

Unfortunately, because of safety measures employed to slow the spread of the virus, people experiencing intimate partner violence may be stuck at home with their abuser. 

Sarah Meredith, the director of UC Davis’ Center for Advocacy, Resources & Education (CARE), said that people experiencing domestic abuse can have immense difficulty seeking help, especially during the pandemic. 

 “I notice that many survivors in our own community have a hard time making connections with some services because of the isolation and monitoring that is often associated with intimate partner violence,” Meredith said via email.

Resources available for survivors have adjusted in response to COVID-19 restrictions. CARE provides services to all UC Davis students, faculty and staff, and its staff are available to provide services remotely in a manner that is safe for survivors. 

“CARE staff are still available to provide all services remotely,” Meredith said via email. “The advocate will work with the survivor to find a way to meet remotely that feels most safe for the survivor, whether that’s a video conference meeting, phone call, or simply communicating via email. We are still available for 24/7 in-person emergency response.”

Empower YOLO offers free services for survivors of intimate partner violence (including counseling and legal services) that are not limited to UC Davis affiliates. Natalia Baltazar, the director of development and community relations of Empower YOLO, said that in the first few months of the pandemic, the organization had more clients report feeling unsafe in their homes.

“We had several clients feeling like prisoners in their homes,” Baltazar said. “Lockdown was not safe for them.”

Cannon and her colleagues have proposed using COVID-19 infrastructure to screen for intimate partner violence, similar to what is often done at doctors’ offices. 

“Now, particularly in the U.S.—but this could also work globally—we have this COVID-19 public health infrastructure: testing sites and vaccination sites,” Cannon said. “We could use that to triage and identify those at risk for experiencing intimate partner violence.”

At Empower YOLO, there are a wide range of services available—from childcare to food services. Baltazar said that domestic violence often comes to the surface during intake. 

“[Clients] come in for an array of things,” Baltazar said. “Sometimes they come in just for clothes, they’ll come in for food or diapers. In their intake process, we found out there has been abuse there and they actually want services for that. We’re really proud that we have these wrap-around services for clients, and with the pandemic obviously things have gotten so stressful for many of our clients.”

There is concern about the underreporting of intimate partner violence as bias comes into play using self-report measures like surveys used in Cannon’s research.

“We fully expect with all of our work on intimate partner violence that things typically are more dire and more prevalent than our data suggests,” Cannon said. “So we say what we’re finding is probably a conservative estimate given the difficulties in people being able to report, acknowledge and express. [This is] both because of internal processes, such as shame, but also because of external consequences: The very real threat of, ‘If I tell someone, that might make it worse.”

Meredith said via email that survivors who are also members of historically marginalized groups are at higher risk of trauma from several different causes. However, intimate partner violence in sex and gender minority communities is vastly underresearched, according to Cannon. 

“Another really important dynamic at play here is the compounded trauma for BIPOC survivors, LGBTQIA survivors, undocumented survivors, unhoused survivors and survivors from other marginalized communities,” Meredith said via email. “Not only are they experiencing trauma related to the abuse, but they are also vulnerable to trauma associated with experiencing racism, xenophobia, cis-sexism, poverty, etc.”

Many community members in Yolo County may not recognize, or may not have seen first-hand, their friends and neighbors dealing with issues like intimate partner violence. 

“One really important takeaway for the general public is the ongoing silent epidemic of intimate partner violence,” Cannon said. “In the U.S., research suggests that one in four women will experience some form of IPV in their lifetime, and one in five men will experience it. So this is something that is affecting our family, our friends, our neighbors, our community—whether we know it or not. And usually we don’t know it.”

Baltazar said that she would like people to learn about these topics and be mindful, and that she is constantly impressed by the strength of her clients at Empower YOLO.

“Our clients are super resilient,” Baltazar said. “It amazes us how even though they are under all of these stresses, they are trying to move forward and be positive in their lives; that ability to survive and be resilient and healthy is pretty amazing.”

Written by: Rebecca Gardner — campus@theaggie.org