Behind Sheltered Doors, Women’s Silence Can Be Deadly

April 17, 2020 | Focus Areas: Ending Gender Violence

Written by Dr. Wendee Wechsberg 


COVID-19 is dominating all the news feeds fueling our personal and professional anxieties. Those of us who work in gender, including intimate-partner violence and addiction research are concerned about the incidents we know are happening while the prescription is to shelter in place.

Routines are disrupted and jobs are affected, children are home. Many women in low paying or contract positions may no longer have their jobs, they may have bills piling up and those on SNAP or WIC may find little food on the food shelves even those first days of the month. These women may feel isolated, stressed and become depressed.

Any one of us could feel hopeless as we listen to the COVID-19 news, but all the other signs of low energy, appetite fluctuations, guilt or worthlessness, lack of concentration, sleep disturbance, irritability or interest can lead to depression. These are serious triggers for relapse to heavy substance use or even overdose.

Before I committed to just being an applied researcher, I was a clinician and treatment director in addiction and conducted groups in the Women’s Correctional Center in Raleigh. I observed then that women who did drugs or drank admitted that they just could not stand the beatings anymore, so they acted also with violence. Unfortunately, they did not have support systems to help them.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people recovering from substance use addiction relapse, with stress and the lack of a social support system regularly cited as two of the leading triggers.

With the stress of COVID-19 it is possible that some people may find comfort in drinking more, or those in recovery, relapse to substance use.  When a person is in recovery, they may feel more fragile without a positive support system and where negative circumstances escalate.

People who report feeling lonely are also more than twice as likely to also have a substance use disorder, and approximately 50 percent of individuals with a severe mental illness, such as depression, are affected by some form of substance dependence – making COVID-19 the perfect storm for relapse.

Although there are important local networks for women to seek shelter and substance abuse treatment, there are limits to the number that can be accommodated during this COVID-19 pandemic.

As community-based researchers concerned with these issues, we need to make sure women who may be shuttered are not forgotten. Our projects locally are establishing ways to reach and be in contact with these vulnerable women through text messages, chats and calls. We need to ensure women under duress know there are options to prevent relapse and options with safety plans to violence.

Wendee M. Wechsberg, PhD, MS is Director of the Substance Use, Gender and Applied Research, Director of the RTI Global Gender Center, Adjunct Professor in Maternal and Child Health at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at NCSU, and Adjunct Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University School of Medicine.


List of National Hotlines

Dating Abuse and Domestic Violence

Depression and Suicide


Mental Illness and Substance Use

Sexual Assault Hotline


Wendee Wechsberg

“We must listen to the communities, the local people, to understand culturally what is going to fit and what is going to be the language of the research, and not just say we know what to do here.”