Pictured Above: Advice from The Retreat’s teen leaders on how to be kind to yourself right now.

The staff of the East Hampton-based domestic violence advocacy organization The Retreat has long worked to understand what’s in the hearts of clients living in abusive situations, but in the midst of a pandemic, they’ve learned first-hand what it means for all of us to live with a situation that can’t be escaped.

“It’s given us a new empathy for our clients who are trapped,” says Helen Atkinson-Barnes, who serves as the Prevention Education Director for The Retreat. “One of the things we talk about is connecting in healthy ways and establishing healthy boundaries. More than ever these days, people are in tight quarters, and they need to find ways to carve out spaces for themselves, even if not physical, maybe it’s psychic space.”

As more and more people cope with the reality of being cooped up inside with their families, or with going to work each day to care for the sick or to stock ravaged grocery shelves, anxiety is becoming as contagious as the disease, and the potential for any one of us to have a mental health crisis is real.

Mental health care workers have a message for the community: We are working, and we are here for you.

The Retreat’s domestic violence hotline at 631.329.2200 is fully staffed and all of its services are offered free of charge.

Suffolk County Family Court in Central Islip is still processing orders of protection. 

More than 11,000 mental health professionals have signed up to staff New York State’s new mental health hotline at 1.844.863.9314. The state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) is providing remote services and continuing to staff its free helpline at 1-877-8-HOPENY.

The Family Service League’s DASH Center, an alternative to a regular hospital emergency room for people in acute mental health or substance use crisis in Hauppauge, is still open and can be reached at 631.952.3333 any time of the day or night. 

Twelve-step programs are still meeting online, with an active North Fork group putting together daily Zoom virtual meetings at northforkaa.com.

Counselors throughout the region are figuring out how to meet with their patients via video conferencing and the old-fashioned phone, and health insurance plans are making tele-health mental health services available to their customers.

The DASH center, at 90 Adams Avenue in Hauppauge is an important resource for those in a severe mental health or substance abuse crisis, and should be seen as an alternative to a regular hospital emergency room at a time when hospitals are overrun with people seeking care for the coronavirus, says Tricia O’Hare, Director of Development and Communication for the Family Service League.

Ms. O’Hare added that “FSL is vigilantly following suggested safety protocols as it remains committed to providing quality mental health counseling, addiction treatment, shelter for people facing homelessness every night, and care coordination to thousands of children and adults. As COVID-19 continues to evolve and impact our neighbors most FSL programs are operating effectively remotely, and even expanding services, via secure digital telehealth methods such as video conferencing, email, and phone.”

She suggested members of the public visit www.fsl-li.org for more information.

Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital’s inpatient acute psychiatric unit was still open as of press time, and can be reached at 631.477.5265 or accessed by the emergency room at the hospital, which is at 201 Manor Place in Greenport. The hospital has temporarily reallocated its Quannacut inpatient chemical dependency rehabilitation space to free up beds for the health crisis, but its 10-bed detox program is still operational. The hospital’s resource situation is subject to change due to the potential future needs of Covid-19 patients there.

The Retreat’s Executive Director, Loretta Davis, said their hotline has been busy and her staff is attuned to the acute need for their services, pointing out that reports of domestic violence in China tripled in areas first hit by the new coronavirus.

“There are a lot of ways that abusers use this time,” said Ms. Davis. “Some of our clients don’t have child care right now, but they still have to go to work and they’re forced to use their abuser for child care, which can be very manipulative. Sometimes abusers restrict access to information — they say ‘the courts and the agencies are closed. You can’t get help. We’re a family and we should be together.’”

Ms. Davis added that survivors may find themselves subject to new forms of abuse during the pandemic, including access to a family’s cash reserves, or to a shared vehicle, or even to food or the technology they may use to contact a counselor.

“People who are living with abusive partners really are their very own experts on knowing how to respond to de-escalate,” says Ms. Atkinson-Barnes. “There’s so much that’s out of their control, but they need to trust their gut in terms of what they need to do to stay safe. Listen to that voice. That’s important.”

“Each situation is different,” she added. “Each person in that situation often has learned over time some of the things to be extra concerned about, especially at times of uncertainty and extra stress, and also economic uncertainty.”

Ms. Davis said victims of abuse in immediate danger should still call 911 to seek help, but can follow up by calling The Retreat’s 631.329.2200 hotline for help navigating their legal rights and next steps.

Suffolk County Family Court Chief Clerk Mike Williams has asked The Retreat and other Suffolk-based domestic violence advocacy agencies to take on an influx of new cases throughout the county.

The court is processing cases virtually via video and telephone, and has extended existing temporary orders of protection until it can reopen for regular business.

Ms. Davis said the community has been very generous with food, art supplies and school supplies for families staying at The Retreat’s shelter, who are not working during the stay-at-home order. 

The Retreat’s staff is working remotely, and is still getting into the rhythm of teleconferences and phone and video-call check-ins. 

Ideas from The Retreat's Teen Leaders on how to support others.

Ms. Atkinson-Barnes said she is heartened that several of The Retreat’s teen leaders are staying involved while home adapting to distance learning, and have been engaged in new teleconference meetings to plan for more advocacy.

“One of things we see is that stress, if not addressed in a healthy way, like journaling or exercise, can manifest itself in symptomatic ways, like nightmares or trouble sleeping,” she said. “People can get angry or abusive and don’t want to blame that behavior on stress, but people need to recognize they have a choice in how to respond to stress. Being controlling or hurtful of others is a choice and is not going to resolve the problem.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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