Despite COVID-19, Douglas County numbers don’t show suicide, domestic violence spikes

But the true picture may be obscured

Elliott Wenzler
ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/16/20

“We thought we were going to be unbelievably busy,” said Cpl. Brian Briggs of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

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Despite COVID-19, Douglas County numbers don’t show suicide, domestic violence spikes

But the true picture may be obscured

Posted

As COVID-19 stay-at-home orders rolled out in March and April, experts nationwide worried that the isolation would cause an increase in mental health episodes and domestic violence incidents.

But as life begins to return to normal in Douglas County and elsewhere, local experts in these fields are reporting that, at least by their measures, most data show this hasn’t yet happened here to a major extent.

National experts say it may be years before the final word emerges. But so far, locally, officials aren’t seeing major spikes.

“We thought we were going to be unbelievably busy,” said Cpl. Brian Briggs of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

Briggs is a deputy with the Community Response Team, which is made up of both deputies and mental health clinicians who specialize in responding to mental health-related calls.

“We have not seen a big spike. To be honest, we’ve had moments of complete boredom,” he said.

In 2019, when there was only one CRT, they responded to about 1,300 calls for services. So far this year, they have responded to 768. Briggs explains that these numbers are difficult to compare because there are now two teams responding to calls.

“That just tells you there was an overall lowering in our little micro area,” he said. 

In a May 20 Douglas County virtual town hall meeting, Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of Tri-County Health Department, provided an update into suicide data in the state.

“We don’t yet, at least measurably, have an increase in suicides in Colorado,” he said. “We all worry about the mental health issue, ... (but) that’s not yet happened here.”

Briggs sees many reasons that Douglas County hasn’t seen a spike in these cases.

“We have unbelievable trails and parks, ... and I can’t tell you how busy those were,” he said. “I’ve got to believe some of that has to do with it.”

The team’s case managers also worked to proactively reach out to people who they have worked with in the past and who may be triggered by the stress of the shutdown. 

Two other possible trends Briggs noticed were a rise in alcohol-related incidents and a decrease in youth calls, he said.

Nationally, medical organizations don’t expect to have a full picture of how suicide rates have changed during the pandemic for about two years, according to the American Psychological Association.

Domestic violence numbers

Domestic violence experts throughout the country were also concerned there would be an increase in those incidents but again, in Douglas County, the data point to a different story so far.

“We have not seen an increase,” said Jennifer Walker, the executive director of The Crisis Center, which seeks to end domestic violence in the community.

Still, Walker worries that perhaps the data during this time is misleading.

“(Victims) may not want to expose their children to a communal living environment right now,” she said. “Some may be tolerating abuse rather than leaving because maybe tolerating it is less scary than being exposed to COVID-19.”

There is also the chance that the financial stresses caused by the pandemic could prevent a victim from feeling secure enough to leave an abusive situation.

“Maybe their partner holds the health insurance and if they leave, their partner could cancel it. And then what if they get sick?” Walker said. 

Domestic violence is already notoriously underreported, so this could just be another facet of that problem, she said.

At the sheriff’s office, deputies saw a 93% increase in March compared to last year in calls for service related to domestic violence. In April, there was a 24% increase.

The district attorney’s office, however, is actually seeing a slight decrease in the cases filed against domestic violence offenders.

In 2019, Douglas County saw 46 domestic violence cases filed between March 26 and April 27 — the duration of the stay-at-home order this year. In 2020, there were 39 cases. Overall, the 18th Judicial District had nine fewer cases this year.

“We cannot say if domestic violence is occurring but not being reported by either victims or mandatory reporters, who are not coming into contact with as many possible victims,” said DA spokeswoman Vikki Migoya. 

By Colorado law, medical professionals are required to report injuries if they suspect they were caused by domestic violence. If the patient is 18 years or older, the medical professional must get their consent to involve law enforcement. 

In other parts of the world, there has been a sharp increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. The United Nations in April called for governments to take action in what they predicted would be intensified violence against women and girls during the shutdown.

There is not yet a consensus of data on how the pandemic has affected domestic violence throughout the country but some local data elsewhere have shown alarming increases, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.

In North Carolina, one town reported a 116% increase in demand for shelter and services benefitting domestic violence victims. In Oregon, some organizations reported increases in calls for help and emergency shelter. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has also reported measurable increases in the need for resources.

“Understanding the full toll of the pandemic on (domestic violence) may take years,” according to the report from KFF. “Cases of (domestic violence) are known to be undercounted and collecting data during a crisis can be more challenging.”

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