WILMINGTON — Most days, Audrey Hart is doing well.
But on a couple of days a week, the stress of the pandemic takes its toll on Hart, director of the New Hanover Disaster Coalition. How could it not when you’re the one who gets called when a hurricane is bearing down on the coast or a virus is overwhelming the world’s hospitals?
Hart is far from alone. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are stark. Rising death tolls coupled with the cratering of the global economy has put undue stress on communities worldwide. Experts fear one of the lingering issues post COVID-19 will be trauma and early data shows an uptick in child, domestic, and substance abuse.
Unlike the immediate impacts of the pandemic — loss of income, disruption of routines, and the health issues for those who actually contract the disease — trauma is likely to last long after things return to a relative normal. The lingering emotional and psychological repercussions are harder to deal with as well; stop-gap measures like unemployment assistance and stimulus checks won’t help with anxiety, stress, and depression.
“This is going to be a huge impact,” Hart said. “The anxiety of not knowing what is going to happen. The uncertainty of what it is going to look like in one to two years. Nobody knows what it is going to look like.”
Hart said the nonprofit community is already seeing issues. The region saw a big surge in most needs for the month following President Trump’s National Emergency declaration on March 13, but the nature of requests has shifted somewhat in the last several weeks, according to NC 2-1-1 — a service run by the United Way of North Carolina which allows residents to get free, confidential information and referrals related to community services.
Since March 13, total requests declined, but recent data doesn’t consider callers who received referrals weeks ago and may still require assistance.
Trauma comes with the need for assistance. Social distancing is only exacerbating the stress and trauma of the pandemic. Several communities have taken the issue head on, according to recent reporting in Axios.
Lincoln Nebraska Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird often shares personal stories during press conferences and Topeka Kansas Mayor Michelle De La created a “warmline” versus a hotline linking up volunteers with lonely citizens.
In New Hanover County, the Resiliency Task Force of New Hanover County (RTF) launched two years ago organizing around addressing childhood trauma and toxic stress.
“We’re going to need to respond to all different levels of trauma when we come back,” Resiliency Task Force Director Mebane Boyd said. “Human beings are wired for connection. When we haven’t had those connections, we don’t really know how this is going to show up.”
RTF created a blueprint and training program to build the county into a resilient, compassionate community. Training in resiliency skills and trauma awareness is being used daily during the pandemic, Boyd said. Front line responders understand how to deal with toxic stress and trauma through peer support and a heightened awareness of the signs of trauma; that’s important not just for others but for themselves — so they can stay healthy enough to help others.
“When working with stressors and developing techniques to create resiliency you can never have too many tools in your toolbox,” Tom Robinson, assistant chief of support services with the Wilmington Fire Department, noted in an RTF release. “We have been given a number of additional resources and reminders from the Resiliency Task Force that have been sent to all our personnel to aid them in the manner most appropriate for each of them.”
Boyd said it’s more than a program.
“It’s about the way we see one another and how we see ourselves. I think it is sort of an awakening for our community. Putting on our trauma lenses when we look at the world,” she said.
Abusive relationships during the pandemic
Boyd said one major concern is how the stay at home orders have trapped victims of abuse with their abuser. Domestic Violence Shelter and Services in Wilmington reported an uptick in calls during the pandemic, according to a WECT report from early May. They’ve seen a more than 100 percent increase in calls and almost a 50 percent increase in service requests.
“Those numbers are staggering,” Mandy Houvouras, outreach director for the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services in Wilmington, told WECT. “When I ran reports and looked into that increase, it’s alarming but unfortunately it’s not surprising for advocates. We know that situations like this pandemic impact the most vulnerable populations the most and when you’re trapped at home with someone who is controlling and who is abusive and then you’re dealing with additional isolation, that is a recipe for violence to escalate.”
Despite the uptick in calls to the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Boyd said reports to child protective services are down because the children are no longer exposed to teachers and coaches who are required to report abuse.
“They’re not showing up at places where mandated reporters are there to report their trauma,” she said. “They’re trapped in abusive situations for months on end.”
At risk: victims of sex trafficking
Dawn Ferrer, program Director at A Safe Place, a non-profit started in 2012 that works with victims of sex trafficking, said there is near-constant help needed in combating commercial sexual exploitation.
“We all know [they] are directly impacted by this,” Ferrer said. “Some of them have lost their jobs. We know they will have to resort to things just to live.”
A Safe Place closed shelter intakes. Two women in their shelter left before the stay at home order took effect and they referred two women to Vigilant Hope, a nonprofit helping the homeless, to get a hotel room.
“We’re doing what we can,” Ferrer said. “The lockdown order was a trigger. Being locked down with their abusers. We’re all supporting [them] as much as we can.
Ferrer said the long-term issues will center on recovery. Many of the women working with A Safe Place haven’t seen a caseworker and without that support have gone back to using drugs.
“We’ll have to address that need when we are operational,” Ferrer said.
But Boyd is cautiously optimistic about life once the pandemic passes and a new normal is established because of how the community rallied after past hurricanes.
“When we go through things together, it bonds and connects a community,” Boyd said. “I’d hope some learning takes place.”
Kevin Maurer is a journalist and author. He is currently the Director of Community Engagement at Cape Fear Collective.