The surge in life and death calls is taking a toll on domestic violence hotline workers

On a typical day, Araujo said, she received two or three calls from people desperate for help and fearful for their lives after being attacked or receiving death threats with a gun or other weapon. Sometimes she accompanied callers to the hospital and sat with them while doctors examined their injuries for possible long-term effects.

“I went home and just went to my husband who was holding me and I would cry a little because some days it is really hard,” said Araujo. “I have to keep a strong front at work, keep my emotions in check. And when I get home, I have to be able to let them out.”

Araujo wasn’t 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 during the time they had also seen an increase in urgent calls from people in life-threatening situations Pandemic, which often leads to uncontrollable stress and burnout for workers.

Leila Wood, a social work researcher and associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Department who studied stress in direct service workers working with domestic violence survivors, said direct service workers are exacerbated in their high-impact jobs the pandemic obstacles they may face, such as isolation and financial distress, could lead to long-term psychological and emotional challenges such as burnout or secondary traumatic stress. She explained that burnout, like exhaustion, the feeling of inability to work, depersonalization, and “not seeing customers as dynamic people because you are just so exhausted and exhausted”, she explained. She said secondary traumatic stress can include symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, constant brooding and worrying about clients’ situation and “bringing work home”.

“One thing to remember is … for lawyers on the front line, they have contact with partners who use violence that comes on the ground, and there are real security threats when working in an emergency shelter,” said Holz. “So part of that fear isn’t actually secondary traumatic stress or burnout. It’s real adaptive safety concerns.”

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, a customer service attorney at Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, said she was in “go, go, go” mode for about three to four months when the pandemic started but as the escalation of urgent, life or death calls went on with no apparent end, she felt the toll of the workload and experienced fits of anxiety and fatigue which she categorized as burnout. She tried to relax after work, but couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh man, I just don’t sleep well,'” said Arias. “But the moment I saw the trend, which was going on over the long term, for weeks and months, I thought, ‘Okay, that’s something else.'”

AVDA is a nonprofit that provides free legal representation to Texas domestic violence survivors. AVDA is not a hotline, but Arias still takes calls from domestic violence survivors. She said she may have received a few life-threatening calls a month before the pandemic, but she gets them every day now.

“Everyone in the world went through the pandemic, including social workers and lawyers, so it was kind of difficult to adjust to one’s personal and professional lives,” Arias said.

Wood conducted a study published in December in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence that found that 85 percent of respondents, all of whom work with domestic violence survivors, reported increased workplace stress related to the pandemic. The study also said burnout and secondary traumatic stress contribute to turnover in domestic violence organizations, which Wood told NBC News could affect customer service.

Mikisha Hooper, who heads the Texas Council on Family Violence’s annual coverage of homicides to partnerships, said there had been a 22 percent increase in all intimate partner deaths in Texas from 2019 to 2020, in part due to “conditions of the pandemic.” is due, including isolation and economic pressures. With both crisis phone calls and death rates increasing, this makes it difficult for workers to cope with and often creates a sense of personal responsibility.

In addition to the increase in calls for life or death, the crisis lines had to continue during the pandemic. Peggy Whilde, director of staff support and wellbeing for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said lawyers recently reported an increased sense of urgency, which may have led to feelings of distress from receiving more calls from people with problems they are unfamiliar with domestic violence.

“Lawyers believe that the number of people who come forward are in a much higher level of crisis or come to us with problems that are not intimate partner violence, which include psychotic symptoms, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts because they don’t others economic and psychological have health resources available to them, ”Whilde said.

There is one thing companies can do to deal with high levels of worker stress: offer paid time off, encourage workers to take time off, and provide adequate training and peer support, Wood said.

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

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