To compensate for the fact that we were in lockdown and there were only the two of us at our Seder on both nights of Passover my wife placed pictures of extended family on the table. We had smiling images of our children, grandchildren and parents join with us vicariously as we read from the Haggadah, drank the four cups and sang. It was a bit bizarre as we have always had somewhere in the vicinity of 20 or more people at our seder table, but we were determined to have as memorable a time as possible. It turns out we also had others join us seder night albeit digitally.
As strange and challenging as the holiday was it was not as difficult for the two of us as it was for others. I was on call during the holiday. I took call at a time that I typically would not because times of stress require it and I had volunteered to a request to provide crisis mental health services in this time. Stress significantly increases during periods of social isolation and confronting an unknown particularly one that posed a sobering health threat. So, it was not much of a surprise that I would get some calls from desperate individuals.
We were joined at our seder by a 20-year-old woman who called from the basement that she was locked in. Her father had been her abuser for over 10 years. She had no option but to be in that home due to the lockdown but her father, true to form, had slapped, groped and put her in the basement just as he had when she was 10. We were also joined by text by a 16-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by her older brother while sitting at the seder table.
In the four days that began with Passover until the fourth day of the holiday which coincided with Easter, I received twenty-three similar calls from individuals in distress. For these callers the holiday season was memorable for all the wrong reasons. There were calls from people who were having suicidal reactions. Most of the calls, however, came from individuals I did not know but who told me that they were being abused by members of their own family.
In the run up to Passover religious leaders who under normal circumstances would caution against using cell phones on a holiday issued statements that seemed prophetic. They declared that it was permissible to use cell phones if necessary, to contact others for help coping with any excessive stress, anxiety or any mental health crisis that may arise from the conditions that exist in the age of Covid19. I fielded some of those calls.
These calls have not stopped more than six weeks later.
The calls I received and continue to respond to provide, at best, only anecdotal information culled from my own experience. I do however believe that there is an important indication from my experience that should not be overlooked. The FBI and WHO issued warnings that social isolation and physical distancing could result in more cases of domestic violence and abuse. And that is precisely what I heard from the majority of those who called or texted me.
The calls about abuse came primarily from teens and young adults who were being molested by the family members they were isolated with. The desperation of the caller’s was palpable. Most often all I could do was to help calm the caller and encourage them to contact the proper authorities. Some were willing to tell me their age or some other basic demographic information. In fact, only one person told me the area she was calling from, no more.
Being sexually and physically hurt and intimidated was the common thread in all these calls. I am quite sure that few of the callers contacted the authorities for reasons that are well known. They fear the authorities who they believe cannot help or may even make things worse. They have been intimidated by their abusers to believe that if they report their abusers more harm will come to themselves or other family members and so on.
I am unsettled by the rise of these calls. I listened. I gave advice and I directed them. Was there more I could have done? What other responsibility do I have? What about the large organizations that offer hotline services but have been overwhelmed and have allegedly taken hours and in some cases days to get back to the troubled callers? Will this improve after we are past this pandemic? And why is this pattern continuing even as the lockdown is lifting?
Only one person sent me a follow up text. She did what I suggested and was afraid of the next steps but grateful that I pushed her to do it. I hope others feel the same.