The coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend a Honolulu gathering of hundreds of psychologists, social workers, law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses, domestic abuse survivors and advocates.

But organizers of the Institute of Violence, Abuse and Trauma’s 17th annual Hawaii summit decided the opportunity to train people — from paramedics to marriage and family counselors — in how to tackle issues like child abuse and traumatic stress was needed now more than ever.

And so the conference is going virtual, with dozens of global experts set to present workshops and training sessions on the Zoom videoconferencing platform on topics like deep-seated trauma among Native Hawaiians and spiritual therapies for suicidal veterans. There will be a workshop for first responders about how to deal with on-the-job exposure to trauma and a session about how to investigate allegations of abuse within a family.

More than 800 people from around the world have registered for the four-day event, which is set to begin Tuesday.

I know a lot of the domestic violence and sexual violence hotlines are experiencing an increase in calls right now and I know a lot of professionals are expressing concerns like, ‘How do I support the families I work with through telehealth when not all of them have the means to use this technology?’” said IVAT Chief Executive Officer Sandi Capuano Morrison.

HFD and Honolulu Police Department officers respond to a shooting near La Pietra. Police watch as fire erupts from homes nearby.
The major conference on violence and abuse offers sessions on trauma and other topics for medical and social services professionals and first responders, like these Honolulu police officers who suffered a significant tragedy of their own earlier this year when two officers were shot and killed near Diamond Head. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Founded in 1984, the San Diego-based IVAT has a satellite office in Honolulu, where it works to end violence and heal trauma. The coronavirus pandemic, however, appears to be creating a new type of trauma, Capuano Morrison said.

“What I anticipate will happen is that in the Q&A part of every training that we do, attendees will be able to say to trainers, ‘This is how I was dealing with domestic violence before the pandemic, but now it’s so much more difficult to provide safety planning to someone who is at home isolated with their abuser,’” she said.

“I think there will be a lot of conversation about how to address these issues in this new environment we’re living in because what’s happening right now is unprecedented.”

For some people living in dysfunctional households, isolating at home to suppress the spread of COVID-19 can be anything but safe. Experts around the world are predicting spikes in child abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse as families adhere to new federal and state guidelines urging them not to go outside.

Since mid-March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received more than 2,000 calls in which COVID-19 was cited as a condition of abuse.

The pandemic has also caused an uptick in psychiatric symptoms among people with histories of mental illness. In Hawaii, psychiatrists are increasing medication doses or seeing patients more often.

People with no history of psychiatric symptoms are also struggling. Almost half of U.S. adults say that the coronavirus pandemic is damaging their mental health, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in late March.

“What’s happening right now is so very different from our regular life,” said Brian Kanno, a therapist with the Honolulu Psychology Collective who helped plan the IVAT’s inaugural virtual summit. “With the stay-at-home order and with people having financial obligations they cannot meet, it creates new pressures and stress that are being felt in a lot of different ways.”

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