More Women Die by Suicide as the Coronavirus Crisis Ushers in Rise in Domestic Violence

A young Israeli mother wrote to her lawyer after being granted a restraining order against her abusive husband that she 'saved her.' The next day, she killed herself ■ Haaretz investigation finds coronavirus restrictions trigger a surge in violence, putting many women at a high risk of suicide

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Women demonstrating against domestic violence, Jerusalem, May 9, 2020.
Women demonstrating against domestic violence, Jerusalem, May 9, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

With hardly anyone even hearing about it, a young mother of one from central Israel committed suicide just a day after having obtained a protective order against her abusive husband. In a separate case, a mother of three toddlers called a domestic violence hotline and said: “I have no life, so why should I keep on living?” Another woman in her 40s, who in the past attempted to commit suicide, burst into tears while speaking with a hotline operator after her partner forbade her to leave the house even within the permitted 100-meter distance from home, an emergency coronavirus restriction the government imposed in March, that has since been canceled. 

A Haaretz investigation has found that in the shadow of the coronavirus, there has been an increase of tens of percentage points in reports of suicidal intentions expressed by domestic violence victims.

A., determined to save herself and her baby, wept and trembled in court some two weeks ago as she told her story to the judge – a story of continued abuse, both physical and emotional, by her husband. A., a woman in her 30s from central Israel and the mother of an 18-month-old baby, requested the court to issue a protective order against her husband. A few days earlier, she filed a complaint against him with the police and he was brought in for questioning.

The judge granted her request and issued a restraining order against her abusive husband. “Dearest, I wanted to thank you for accompanying, encouraging, and supporting me…,” A. wrote in a letter to her lawyer after the court hearing. “You saved me today, I am really lost these days.” The next day she killed herself by jumping out of a window at her parents’ house.

Shani Moran, the lawyer who represented A., wrote on Facebook that she's "shattered to pieces. The fear and anxiety gnaw away at her until she couldn’t take it anymore. I think about her, how she heroically stood in front of the judge and spoke about the ongoing torture she was undergoing. She was determined to save herself and her baby from him and to start a better life. And now she is no longer here.

“She was so afraid. She spoke in court with her head bowed down. She feared of what would happen when her husband found out she had requested to issue a protective order against him. She was terrified that he would hurt her child and her,” Moran wrote.

A.’s story, the details of which are published here for the first time, is only one of four suicide cases related to domestic violence these recent weeks have seen. The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Welfare Ministry reported this week the four cases to the chairwoman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, Aida Touma-Sliman.

In two of the cases, the abused women committed suicide, while in the other two the abusive men were the ones who decided to end their lives. One of them was a violent man who had been in the care of the Welfare Ministry for years. He underwent a comprehensive rehabilitation process, participated in many group therapies, and even helped other men. However, his condition deteriorated in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

The Welfare Ministry told Haaretz that the two additional cases the committee was informed about are of people who had grappled with domestic violence in the past and it is not clear to what extent that influenced their decisions to end their lives.

A Haaretz investigation has found that these four tragic cases represent only a small part of the increasing phenomenon of women and children who are subjcted to violence, as well as violent men, who have tried to end their lives since the restrictions on movement to stem the spread of the coronavirus had been put in place.

Data provided by ERAN – a nonprofit organization that provides emotional first aid on the phone and online – shows that 729 domestic violence-related calls and emails were received from March to May, compared to 537 from January to March, an increase of 35.8 percent. Of these, nine were deemed as urgent cases with immediate suicide risk that required the intervention of the police police and welfare personnel.

In the months that preceded the coronavirus crisis, however, zero cases linked to domestic violence and with an immediate suicide risk were reported. ERAN stresses that domestic violence cases constitute 10 percent of all the cases defined as having an immediate suicide risk reported during the coronavirus crisis.

In one of those urgent cases, a terrified mother of three called the ERAN hotline. Paralyzed by fear, she told the operator that she was afraid to return home. “I don’t have a life, so why should I keep on living?” she asked. She was transferred to the treatment of welfare agencies due to the high risk she was in.

A woman protests against femicide, Bat Yam, central Israel, May 8, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Another woman, who is in the midst of complex divorce proceedings, ran away from home in the wake of severe violence and abuse by her husband. The operator who answered her call reported that she sounded desperate and hopeless. The woman told her she was planning to kill herself and that she already had a detailed plan for doing so. The police were informed, and the women was immediately taken to receive hospital care.

In a third case, a woman in her 40s called the hotline and immediately started crying. She told the operator that she had come from a violent home and ended up with a jealous and abusive spouse. She said her partner had forbade her to leave the house even within a 100-meter radius and makes demands she cannot meet. She attempted to commit suicide in the past and underwent treatment years ago.

In another recent case, a woman in her 30s contacted ERAN after her husband threw a temper tantrum. She said that although their relationship had been strained for a long time, she had never seen her husband in such state. In a separate incident, a teenager called the hotline after witnessing severe violence by his abusive father, who the police have recently released from custody. The teenager told the operator he was afraid it would end badly.

Loneliness kills

According to Dr. Shiri Daniels, the national professional director for ERAN, this is just the tip of the iceberg. “We are witnessing a significant uptick in calls reporting on domestic violence,” Daniels said. “Ongoing family issues have been exacerbated, reaching extreme situations amid the coronavirus lockdown, the emotional pressure caused by it and violent patterns of communication.”

She added that “The lack of a routine, as well as multiple pressure factors and various emotional fronts” trigger rapid escalation. “The detachment from social roles that shape one's sense of belonging and self-esteem, alongside the disconnect from a strengthening and empowering support system – including friends, family members and professionals – contribute to the feeling of an unbearable emotional pain and profound loneliness.”

Daniels said that populations known to be at higher risk of suicide should be closely monitored. These populations include sexual assault victims, individuals who suffered from violence and abuse, teenagers, and single and divorced fathers.

According to Daniels, the figures gathered in the past two months stand in contrast to the knowledge on the issue accumulated during other crises in Israel and around the world. She said that for the most part, people tend to have fewer suicidal thoughts in times of emergency, and that those thoughts intensify once the crisis ends and routine is resumed. “Possibly this stems in part from the repercussions of the quarantine and the lockdown,” she explained. “loneliness, in combination with untreated distress, kills. This tricky situation, in-between emergency and routine, adds uncertainty and a feeling of lack of control that are not beneficial to our psychological wellbeing.”

Women who are victims of violence tend to be at higher risk of suicide than the rest of the population, and in times like these they are at even greater risk. Therefore, according to clinical psychologist Prof. Dr. Yossi Levi-Belz, women who experience domestic violence “are in a situation of continuing distress that causes unbearable psychological pain. Since it is often difficult for these women to report their distress and seek help, they remain in a situation we call ‘entrapment’ – being in a difficult situation from which there is no way out.”

Levi-Belz heads the Center for Suicide and Mental Pain Studies at the Ruppin Academic Center and is a board member of the Path to Life nonprofit organization.  

Levi-Belz added that in the time the coronavirus pandemic, this phenomenon becomes even worse, as “the coronavirus crisis brings with it a combination of factors that create acute suicidal risk.” This, he said, stems from the “rise in the level of anxiety and depression, surging unemployment rate and mainly the feeling of uncertainty.

“Homes in which domestic violence occurs are expected to be more violent during lockdown due to the high levels of anxiety and tension and the extended time family members are quarantined together, isolated from the rest of the world. Furthermore, the surroundings' ability to identify that acts of violence are taking place also decreases because of social distancing. The domestic violence victims' home actually became a kind of a trap during lockdown,” according to Levi-Belz.  

Social worker Tamar Schwartz, CEO of the nonprofit organization Women’s Spirit, is familiar with the phenomenon form her three decades of activity on behalf of battered women. According to her, victims of violence feel they are “alone in this, without any help and with no way out. Suicidal attempts by battered women are often a call for help, or a means to get out of the house to a safer place – a hospital or a shelter. At times it is a step aimed at shocking their abusive partner or drawing the surroundings' attention to their miserable situation.” 

Referring to the movement restrictions imposed by the government at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Schwartz said that for battered women, "their home is the most dangerous place. They feel caged in an impossible situation that for them might be fateful. A battered woman lives in constant existential fear and from her perspective she could be murdered by her abusive spouse at any given moment, so for her suicide will put an end to her terrible suffering.”

State agencies are betraying battered women

Last week, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman released the annual state comptroller’s Report, which dealt inter alia with the phenomenon of suicide and suicidal intentions, harshly criticizing the limited government activity to prevent it. 

The report indicates that only 28 percent of the local governments have implemented the national program for the prevention of suicides. The report says that the program's lack of implementation directly impacts the rate of suicide cases – while there was decline of 13 percent in the number of suicides in 2012-2017 in areas where the local governments implemented the program, there was an increase of seven percent in suicide cases in areas where the program wasn't implemented during these years.

“About six years after the launch of national program for suicide prevention, key elements of it have not yet been instituted and its nationwide implementation is quite limited,” Englman wrote in his report. “The Health Ministry, which was supposed to lead and coordinate the program, as well as the Education, Welfare and Absorption ministries, bear responsibility for this."

Between the years 2014 and 2019, the Finance Ministry allocated 110 million shekels to the Health Ministry intended for implementation of program, but the state comptroller’s report reveals that less than half the amount – 51 million shekels – were actually invested in the program.

Lawmaker Touma-Sliman harshly criticized the state. “Not only are there women who are being murdered, there are women among us who are dying of fear,” she said. “They lose the will to live because they are not able to cope with the terror and the threats at home. As a society, we must find the ways to understand the needs of women who experience violence and to protect them. The state agencies are betraying women and are not enabling them to save themselves.”

Levi-Belz added that “The state of Israel would do well to allocate resources to strengthen the treatment systems. A person at a high risk of suicide who is persuaded to seek treatment can recover. However, when no resources are allocated to treatment, and HMOs and other treatment frameworks don't provide sufficient solutions, the unbearable emotional distress is liable to turn into another suicide case.”

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