It is happening everywhere. Adults are assaulted or shot in bars and entertainment venues. Teenagers and gang members kill each other in broad daylight. Children are murdered in their classrooms. Dinner guests who do not know each other break out in brawls in restaurants. Why is there this increase in crime and violence as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted for the first time (Spring 2022) and we try to return to a more normal daily life?
This is not a question that is easily answered. There are several possible paths to violent eruptions and often these many paths are interwoven. Complicating all of this is the fact that the “old” normal way of life has itself been altered in many ways by a “new” normal way of life. This blog will outline some of the more compelling reasons for these angry outbursts and some of the strategies that each of us can utilize to reduce these risks and keep our loved ones safe. We turn first to the data on COVID-related violence.
The Violence Data
The actual overall level of violence is down from its pre-pandemic incidence but some types of crime have increased, whereas others have gone down (1). Some violence is by youth gangs or crime syndicates but this does not fully explain the various increases in violent acts. Homicides have increased, although they remain far below the rates in previous years. Aggravated assaults and gun-assault rates (aggravated assaults with a presence of firearm) have also increased, as did gun sales themselves. More people are also carrying their weapons, so it is not surprising that guns may be drawn in the commission of violent acts and crimes. Motor-vehicle theft has increased, as more vehicles have been left unattended, and motor-vehicle homicides have increased as drivers go at intense speeds on less-crowded highways. Domestic violence increased in the early months of the epidemic but an accurate estimate will not be known until after the pandemic, till these victims, who have been prisoners in their own homes, can reach out to police, teachers, coaches, ministers of all faith traditions, and neighbors.
Due to limited population mobility, some crimes declined. Included here are robberies, larcenies, burglaries, and drug-related crimes. When people were confined to homes, there were fewer persons in schools, retails shops, and other commercial establishments, and this resulted in less chance for crimes of opportunity. Suicides decreased, possibly due to those feeling alone realized many around them were also feeling alone.
The Sources of Stress
We turn next to the possible sources of stress that might lead some to commit the acts of violence that we have just reviewed.
Research has shown that human contact literally gives life and enhances well-being during the lifespan (2). This sense of community, our social fabric, provides us with a sense of belonging and contains the values and practices that permit helpful interactions and personal growth. It also impacts the values that we employee in rearing children The coronavirus has considerably weakened this sense of community by canceling or limiting many basic human interactions. These limitations have resulted in a sense of isolation and loneliness for many. Adults had to forego their support-groups at work and in the community. The virus and its quarantine disrupted important social gatherings, including visits with family and friends, weddings, funerals, graduations, sporting events, concert venues, faith-tradition services, gym facilities, and various civic and political gatherings. There was no eating out, no movies to go to for shuttered theaters, no nights out, and no individual and/or group vacations. The impact on children was equally great. Children need family and friends, including grandparents, to support academic, social growth, and validation. The closing of school buildings, school sports programs, school music programs, and having to stay home created a significant social loss for children.
Household units faced an array of significant stressors during the pandemic. First was unemployment. Some were better off because they could work from home, but many faced full-time job loss or significant underemployment. Still others had to go to work, often facing mandatory daily overtime, as well as transportation difficulties as transportation services were cut back or eliminated. In most cases, these workers faced possible prolonged exposure to the virus. The financial stability in many homes was disrupted and this complicated meeting basic needs.
Before the onset of the virus, ours was an age of time-scarcity: too many things to do in too little time. Ironically, the virus lockdowns made matters worse. Individuals ordered goods and services for home delivery. The quantity of these orders resulted in worldwide service-shipping delays. In addition, as people were laid off many types of offerings were further scaled back. Service shortages arose in other areas as well. Soon there were basic shortages in police, medical, and social services as agencies suffered closures, staffing cutbacks, and employees absent with the virus. In addition, public spaces that could reduce stress, such as libraries and public parks, were closed.
What are the impacts of these stressful life events? These limitations and shortages lead confined people to become lonely, have cabin fever, feel cheated, feel entitled, feel out of control. Confinement leads to experiencing emotional states of anxiety, panic, possible psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (3), depression, and anger. In some individuals violence may erupt. In the short term, many turn to alcohol and street drugs to self-medicate this distress. Sadly, over time, in many cases, violence erupts in the various types of crimes that we have noted.
Equally important, I note in a recent book (4) that youth violence may emerge in children who have abused or witnessed abuse before age 6, come from broken homes, have inadequate schooling, and have developed antisocial values. Many of the virus lockdowns have created the possibility of similar at-risk conditions for some of today’s young, locked-downed people, and youth who have not as yet been violent. As society moves toward a more normal life, we will need to pay attention to the needs of these at-risk children.
Strategies for Coping
Finally, let us explore some simple things that we can all do individually to reduce our risk of violence and restore a more normal and meaningful way of life. Following are a few ways to get started.
Each of us can begin by restoring and enlarging our social fabric through engaging in new social opportunities presented in the absence of lockdown mandates. Adults and children can engage and interact in person with family, teachers, friends, and neighbors. We can resume touring, exploring museums, going to concert venues and sporting events, and the like. We can work toward becoming less reliant on substances, if indicated, and address any emotional problems, if needed. Financial issues may be addressed by returning to previous employment or seeking new work opportunities. Issues with debt can be addressed through the Better Business Bureau (BBB) at no charge. We also need to develop patience, given the service delays and shortages, and expect imperfections in both.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has collected an array of more detailed violence-prevention strategies for home, work, and community (5), and the strategies for preventing youth violence have been presented in detail (4). The interested reader is referred there.
When in public pay attention to your surroundings, stay sober, and avoid areas or events that are known to present risk. As the social fabric of communities is restored, violence should lessen and “normal” life, if somewhat altered, should return. Yet, all of this could change again. Variants of COVID-19 could surge anew and require additional lockdowns or limitations in some form. Should this happen, we would want to learn from the first experiences and do what we can to cope. Adjust to any fiscal limitations that may emerge, continue being patient in the face of shortages, and, most importantly, be sure to keep social networks, our social interactions, intact as best can be.
2. Flannery, R. B. Jr. Violence in America: Coping with Drugs, Distressed Families, Inadequate Schooling, and Acts of Hate. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
3. Flannery, R. B. Jr. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Victim’s Guide to Healing and Recovery. Second Edition. New York, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2012.
4. Flannery, R. B. Jr. Preventing Youth Violence Before It Begins. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation, 2022.
5. CDC.gov/violence prevention.
Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D. FACLP, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups and may be reached at The American Mental Health Foundation: 212.737.9027 elomke[at]americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.