Illuminating Dark Spaces: Vulnerability to Self- and Other-Directed Violence in the Chaos of COVID-19

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

NEVER FEAR SHADOWS. They simply mean there is light shining somewhere nearby. The equalizing darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic has activated a chain of emotions going back and forth with dizzying regularity between feeling scared, distracted, overwhelmed, and then hopeful, encouraged, and expectant. Losses continue to mount exponentially with imprecise forecasts for returning to what we used to call normal. Daily news chronicling stories of business closures, job terminations, depleted personal finances, compromised abilities to pay housing costs, utility bills, credit card debt, school tuitions, and costs at pharmacies for needed medicines are all too common. Stories appear about canceled graduations, baptisms, quinceañeras, bar mitzvahs and other social markers of rites of passage. Narratives of the deaths of loved ones without proper goodbyes due to cancellation of celebration of life ceremonies, and mothers giving birth while their partners are forced to wait elsewhere, are especially heartbreaking. Prolonged and heightened anxiety, anger, depression, sadness, fear, and no-way-out panic buoyed only by ambiguous assertions that this “craziness” will end at some point, pushes people to the margins of their emotional limits activating urgent needs to find relief by any means necessary. Intimate partner violence, suicide, and bigotry represent just three COVID-19-influenced concerns of which to be aware and monitor, and on which to intervene.

Emotional consequences of COVID-19 can serve as catalysts for increases in intimate partner violence (IPV). Forced into feeling trapped and powerless and rendered defenseless, ineffective and vulnerable can create interpersonal, familial, and social environments ripe for acting out violently. Intimate partner violence already affects 12 million people annually. Approximately 24 people per minute are victims/survivors of stalking, physical violence, or rape. In their lifetime, nearly 25 percent of women and close to 14 percent males in the United States who are 18 or older represent survivors of severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

Perpetrators of IPV, both men and women, across race, social class, and other indicators of personal identity, create images of their partners as “their enemy,” who they need to control, using tools of manipulation including but not limited to verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse; humiliation, put-downs, proclamations that no one else will want them; financial abuse, and isolation from supportive friends and family. Perpetrators minimize their actions and excuse themselves from blame by asserting, “I didn’t mean it,” “I lost control,” “I was under the influence,” “I’ll never do it again,” and “You made me do it.” These self-denial proclamations from perpetrators occur all while transitioning through stages expressed as tension-building, episodes of violence, to reconciliation. And, do the dark shadows of perpetrator behaviors suggest that there is light somewhere nearby? Who might that light be?

No less alarming is the likely influence of COVID-19 on national suicide rates. According to a CNN report, suicide rates in the United States continued to rise, increasing approximately 35 percent between 1999-2018. High rates of unemployment, poverty, lack of control over personal life spaces, poor self-image, and real or perceived inabilities to think about solutions or to cope with challenges that come with dire “new realities” are recognized risk factors for suicide. Myriad and prolonged adverse emotional and other consequences of COVID-19 have set the stage for increased suicide and self-harm. And, do the dark shadows of feeling suicidal suggests that there is light nearby? And, who might that light be?

Stripped-away freedoms to move at will and to interact in customary ways with family, friends, and colleagues, within the context of COVID-19, has led to increases in xenophobia and bigotry, directed particularly against Asian American and Asian communities. Misinformation and racism have ignited blame against Asian communities, even if they are not Chinese, for bringing COVID-19 to American shores and spreading the potentially lethal virus across the 52 states. Scapegoating against Asian communities is likely to continue to manifest in hate language and acts of aggression as emotional tensions rise in the still unfolding atmosphere of COVID-19. These unwarranted attacks against ethnic/racial groups and other marginalized communities during times of local, state, or national crises is not a new phenomenon. As just two examples, recall the hate speech and violent behaviors directed

toward Muslim Americans, Muslims, Arabs and other communities immediately following 9-11, or the LGBTQ communities during the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s. And, do the dark shadows of bigotry suggest that there is light somewhere nearby? And, who might that light be?

The time to be aware of and pay attention to the mental health and wellness of family, friends, colleagues, schoolchildren, college students, middle-aged adults and the elderly has never been so keenly urgent. Life as we knew it, with all its implied freedoms, has been snatched away and individuals and communities have been left to think differently about themselves, their place and purpose in the world, and about others in their immediate circles of influence. Thus, during these times of considerable challenge, do not hesitate to use Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime, Skype, texts, or smartphones to check in with loved ones and other acquaintances. Checking in with family, friends, or colleagues with whom you have never-shared, long-term private concerns regarding their mental health and well-being should also be considered. Let your compassion and kindness be the light you shine on persons in need.

Educate yourself about mental health and wellness topics (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, anger, to name a few) becoming especially mindful of indicators of emotional distress. In addition to educating yourself, strengthen your resolve that if you see something, say something. Consult a trusted friend or professional and have mental health and wellness resources readily available to share. In the end, reaching out to someone in need, whether they express their need in whispered voices or stentorian tones, is a good thing to do. Lightness and darkness can’t coexist. Be intentional, respectful, and humble in your outreach, resisting urges to shine so that others can see you. Instead, choose to shine so that through you, others will be able to see their way forward. And, as you work to bring out the light in others, you will shine light on your own path! Until next time.


Mental Health and Wellness Resources 

  1. National Suicide Hotline 800.273.8255 
  2. SAMHSA National Helpline 800.662.4357 
  3. Child Abuse Protection 800.540.4000 
  4. National Domestic Violence Hotline 800.799.7233 


Mental Health and Wellness Topics 

  1. National Institute of Mental Health: Education and Awareness  
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mental Health  
  3. National Institute of Mental Health: Help for Mental Illnesses 
  4. National Institute of Mental Health: Featured Topics and Events