Friday, April 8, 2022

Changes in abuse during the pandemic?

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

 A recent article in the New York Times compiles data on physical and emotional abuse of teenagers during the pandemic. It is based on research involving 7,705 students conducted in the first half of 2021 and published by the US Centers for Disease Control. Among the findings:

·         44.2 percent described  persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that prevented them from participating in normal activities.

·         9 percent reported an attempt at suicide and 20 percent said they had considered it.

·         55.1 percent of teenage respondents said they suffered emotional abuse from a parent or another adult in their house in the preceding year.

·         11.3 percent said they suffered physical abuse.

This contrasts sharply with data from David Finkelhor and his colleagues, published in 2013, finding that (among other things) 13.9 percent of respondents ages 14 to 17 reported emotional abuse during the preceding year, and 5.5 percent reported physical abuse.

Further, in the most recent study, 29% reported that a parent or another adult in the home lost a job, and 24 percent said that they had experienced hunger. One in three high-school students simply reported poor mental health.

In all, it seems that our field is finally starting to see the data we feared we would. Those professionals who have watched the unfolding of the past 25 months or so are very aware that it’s not just the kids; parents and teachers are also experiencing intense stress. It doesn’t end there: a recent survey found that one in five physicians plan to leave their practice in the next two years.

Where do we go from here? Clearly, we have a lot of work to do, and the pandemic is not actually over yet. Setting aside the fact that the world continues to face other crises (such as the war on Ukraine and climate change) there is some good news:

First, we have an opportunity to learn from these data and anticipate cases that will come to our attention. One implication is that developing an appreciation for the context and circumstances in which abuse occurs will be important to consider as well as the characteristics of the person who abuses.

Second, we have a better opportunity to intervene. These data paint a clearer picture than we had before about the nature of suffering behind closed doors. We knew it would be bad, but at least we are better prepared to work with people whose lives have been affected by abuse (including by perpetrating it).

Third, we have expertise that we can share when we work with others in the community. This can include our knowledge of abuse dynamics and trauma as well as our (often hard-won) ability to remain compassionate in the face of the horrific circumstances of our clients.

Importantly, these findings show that times have changed, and we in turn need to adapt our understanding of abuse and neglect. Ultimately, these times – where existential crises unfold on a daily basis – show how important it is that our field shares what we know in order to ease the suffering of others in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

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