In March 2020 in the U.S., stay at home orders were put in place, schools went remote, people began working from home, and many Americans were furloughed or laid off. Since the surge of COVID-19 cases, the pandemic has increased the number of people stuck in their houses through the various measures set in place to curb the spread of the virus. While this chance to spend more time with family members and loved ones may seem like a blessing to many, the domestic confinement has caused concern about an increase in intimate partner violence (IPV). About 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced IPV in various forms: physical, emotional and psychological . The pandemic has drastically exacerbated these numbers, however.
Lockdowns and stay at home orders have contributed to social isolation by separating victims from their support systems and reduced access to shelters and IPV services. IPV is a serious public health issue. Pre-pandemic statistics indicate that approximately 35% of female IPV survivors and more than 11% of male IPV survivors have experienced some form of physical injury related to IPV . Beyond immediate physical health consequences, IPV has been also linked to many long-term detrimental health outcomes, including gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain syndromes, depression and suicidal behavior .
The harrowing experiences and continued struggles IPV victims experience must be addressed in policy change and advocacy. A group of medical students at the Washington University Medical School (WUSM) is leading by example with LouHealth, an organization they started amid the pandemic. LouHealth seeks to address criminal justice reform, lack of equitable healthcare access and the rise in IPV through sustainable public health advocacy and policy work.
To learn more about LouHealth’s mission and what inspires these students to work towards IPV advocacy, I interviewed the leaders of the IPV Survivor Advocacy Team: Drishti Sinha, Shireen Roy and Lydia Zhong, all three of whom are also medical students at WUSM.
When asked why they wanted to get involved with IPV advocacy, Sinha said, “I knew I wanted to do advocacy work to build safer spaces for survivors of IPV during a time when survivors have even fewer resources available to them to get support. I also knew I wanted to create a team that took an intersectional approach to addressing IPV, specifically focusing on populations that are disproportionately affected by both IPV and the effects of the pandemic.”
Roy stressed the importance of engaging with the St. Louis community: “As students, most of us are visitors to this amazing city. I wanted to engage in advocacy that was responsive to community needs and would be helpful beyond the four years I spend here. Therefore, I especially appreciate that LouHealth focuses on integrating themselves with local organizations with the goal of long-term, sustainable change.”
There are four groups under the LouHealth umbrella: the Intimate Partner Violence Survivor Advocacy, Healthcare Access and Equity, Criminal Justice Reform and Media Outreach Teams. The four concentrations of these teams were chosen based on advice from healthcare workers and public health leaders in the community at the start of the pandemic. The organization is structured around forging partnerships with local organizations to support ongoing efforts in a community-oriented way. Since last summer, LouHealth has grown to include students from various graduate schools and undergraduate students at WashU and SLU.
The IPV Advocacy Team has completed numerous projects to support community partners since its inception and continues to provide support to the St. Louis community through ongoing initiatives. For example, they have trained 132 advocates from domestic violence organizations on the use of myPlan, a free safety planning app for survivors. The team has also partnered with other organizations such as the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the St. Louis Anti-Violence Project (STLAVP), Planned Parenthood, Life Source Consultants and Casa de Salud. In collaboration with STLAVP, the IPV Advocacy Team has also created educational materials for healthcare providers to help facilitate trauma-informed care for LGBTQ+ survivors of IPV, including a written toolkit and recorded training. A future goal in this project is to train medical residents on the topic to help ensure that LGBTQ+ IPV survivors feel comfortable and properly understood in healthcare settings.
The group has also helped Casa de Salud – a health clinic for the immigrant population in St. Louis – develop standardized Spanish and English screening procedures for patients potentially experiencing IPV. This project has helped mitigate the language barrier that can potentially prevent non-english speaking IPV victims from accessing proper resources. The IPV Advocacy Team has also taken a proactive approach to supporting victims by creating IPV curricula for the new WUSM Gateway Curriculum, which marks the first time material on IPV will be required for all medical students. Including this information on IPV in the medical school curriculum serves as a way to make sure that future physicians are well equipped and knowledgeable in proper protocol and practice on dealing with IPV victims.
LouHealth is doing important work, but they are far from finished. Zhong specifically mentioned her plans to use the relationships the IPV team has developed in the community to continue supporting IPV victims. In recognizing the intersectionality of IPV, LouHealth is also looking to broaden the scope of its work. For example, team members have been in the process of setting up meetings with organizations that work in gun violence prevention and civil rights advocacy.
According to Zhong, “there is still so much work to be done, and we can’t wait to start working toward some of these goals.”
IPV continues to be a longstanding issue and work needs to keep being done towards making sure that victims have adequate resources and support systems. LouHealth has taken an initiative towards combating IPV, showing us that advocacy has real strength. They are helping to raise awareness of IPV in the St. Louis community and doing work that not only increases the access of resources for survivors to seek help, but also makes IPV survivors feel heard and comfortable in healthcare settings.
Edited by: Isaac Mordukhovich
Illustrated by: Eugenia Yoh