Family abuse and violence expected to spike amid pandemic

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

25/03/2020 1:59:37 PM

GPs are being urged to stay mindful of a possible increase in cases of abuse and violence as stress and anxiety continue to rise.

Woman alone
Increased violence has been observed in China, where police stations saw reports of domestic violence almost triple in during February isolation.

‘We know that when the stress increases in our community, then that’s likely to cause an increase in family abuse and violence.’
Dr Elizabeth Hindmarsh, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Abuse and Violence in Families network, told newsGP she has become increasingly concerned about the welfare of survivors amid the coronavirus pandemic. Her concerns are shared by domestic violence services across the country.
With major job losses, financial strain, health concerns and Australians increasingly encouraged to stay home as part of stringent social isolation measures, experts have warned there will likely be a spike in family violence.
This situation has already been observed in China, where local police stations saw reports of domestic violence almost triple in February during isolation.
A domestic violence hotline in the US said its calls had doubled, with many perpetrators reportedly using the coronavirus outbreak as a means to control and isolate with threats to throw partners out of the house, while others have been withholding medical assistance and finances.
Services in Australia are facing mounting pressure, as they are encouraged to offer support via phone and web to limit face-to-face contact. Meanwhile, others that help people to find safe refuge have frozen admissions to reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus in communal living.
Advocacy groups have been calling on the Australian Government to inject further funding into services to meet demand. 
‘We want a national campaign providing information for victims of abuse,’ Hayley Foster, Chief Executive of Women’s Safety NSW, said.
Recent research has revealed the important role GPs play as the first point of contact for victims as a conduit to helpful and often lifesaving services.
Dr Hindmarsh acknowledges that GPs are currently under almost insurmountable pressure trying to cope with the pandemic, but says it is important to be aware of the issue.
‘It would be good if we could, where possible, be asking patients, are you safe at home? Or are there problems in the family with all this stress going on? And then looking to talk to them about safety and finding out what services are available,’ Dr Hindmarsh said.
For patients impacted by sexual assault, domestic and family violence, GPs can consider the following:

  • Ask people how they are, look for signs of harm – emotional, physical and financial
  • Keep a log of all key referral information
  • Seek to understand the home environment, including family relationships and support
  • Identify risks early and report any risks to children
  • Talk to the affected person about safety and what that looks like for them
  • Refer people to relevant local support services, including state-based sexual assault, domestic and family violence services
  • Refer to 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for counselling, information and referrals, or other local services
  • Encourage those impacted by domestic and family violence to download safety apps like Daisy and Sunny
For further evidence-based guidance, GPs can refer to Abuse and violence – Working with our patients in general practice (the White Book).
Melonie Sheehan, National Program Manager for 1800 RESPECT, told newsGP it is critical those experiencing violence know help is still accessible. She encourages GPs to inform patients that the national counselling service will continue to operate as usual – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – during the coronavirus outbreak.
‘There will be many pressures as a result of the COVID-19 health emergency. However, there is never an excuse for violence,’ Ms Sheehan said. 
‘During periods of social distancing, if a person does not feel safe to call 1800 RESPECT over the phone, they can speak with our counsellors via webchat. This function can be accessed via our website.’
Ms Sheehan emphasised that counsellors are experienced in how to sensitively handle contacts, both by phone and online, who may be in the same house as the perpetrator.
Dr Hindmarsh suggests that during face-to-face consultations, patients are able to contact any services while in the clinic and use a phone other than their own in cases where perpetrators are tracking and checking their phones.
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Dr Rodney Paul Jones   26/03/2020 8:15:50 PM

I am expecting it will go down because of the pub and club and bans limiting grog use. Countrymen are returning to their communities from large towns because the attraction of alcohol is not there

Dr Elizabeth Dorothy Hindmarsh   28/03/2020 4:50:21 PM

The pubs might be closed but not the grog shops. Alcohol and drugs do not cause family abuse and violence but they certainly make the consequences for victims more violent. Unfortunately the levels are not going down but up. We need to think about asking if our patients are safe and talking to them about safety plans and services that are available like 1800 Respect (1800 737 732).