Money problems are always a risk factor in relationships. With record job losses, home foreclosures and the collapse of the financial markets, more people are looking at unemployment and insecurity than at any time in recent memory. That translates into more tension at the much-vaunted "kitchen table" that politicians like to invoke.
As a result, organizations that deal with domestic violence and substance abuse are bracing for more demand for their services -- even as the recession is forcing some to cut budgets and lay off their own personnel.
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, headquartered in Austin, Texas, could be the canary in the coal mine. The hot line documented a whopping 21 percent increase in calls for September over the same month in 2007, said spokeswoman Retha Fielding.
"Our people make notes of what's said during the calls. They tell us more women are talking about money problems in relation to the violence," Ms. Fielding said.
The hot line just logged its 2 millionth call. "It took us seven years to get the first million calls," she said. "It only took five to get the second million."
At the same time, the financial crisis has forced her organization to cut its budget 25 percent and lay off 11 staffers. That could mean longer wait times for callers who may be in danger just from picking up the phone.
Local warning signs are starting to emerge as well, harkening back to another difficult period for the region.
"When the steel mills started shutting down in the 1980s and it was clear they were never coming back, that was a really bad time for family violence," recalled Shirl Regan, director of the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
"I was at the Women's Center of Beaver County at the time," she said. "We saw an increase in victims seeking services. The women would say things like, 'He was never like this before, but he's lost his job at the mill and there's no place else to make that kind of money.' "
Now, she said, "We think we're starting to see some of the same things in terms of stress factors. Our clients aren't saying there's more violence at this point, but in the past eight weeks they've been talking a lot more about economic stress than they were before. That's a warning sign."
Judy Yupcavage, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said research shows that recession and unemployment don't cause spousal abuse by themselves, but they exacerbate situations where violence already is a factor.
"It's important to emphasize that violent people don't get a pass on this behavior because of a bad economy," she said.
People are also turning their financial anxiety inward. Volunteers at Contact Pittsburgh, the suicide prevention hot line, took 14 percent more calls related to economic distress in September of this year than for the same period last year, said director Christy Stuber.
"We started seeing it in August and it's only increased," she said. "Now our finance-related calls are in the top six categories. That wasn't true a year ago. People are feeling overwhelmed."
She, too, recalled the steel mill closings of the 1980s as a bad time for suicides, adding that similar groups across the nation are expecting an increase in the coming months.
Stephanie Walsh, director of the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty, noted that domestic violence takes place behind closed doors, making it hard to track.
"When there's an increase in robbery or homicide, we know about it," she said. "But it takes a lot for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault -- they're often linked -- to come forward. You're not always going to notice it overnight."
Domestic abuse can be emotional, mental and financial as well as physical and sexual, Ms. Walsh said. Most often, it stems from one partner needing to control the other one in order to feel powerful. When the one who needs to dominate is losing power in other parts of life, it's often the intimate partner who bears the brunt.
"A lot of people have their whole self-image tied up with their jobs," Ms. Walsh said.
In addition, economic insecurity makes it harder for women to move away from an abusive situation.
"All these layoffs and lost jobs contribute to the perception that if she leaves, she might not find a means of support," Ms. Walsh said.
Alcohol and drugs often play a role in spousal and child abuse, noted Steve Pasierb, president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and tough economic times can be trigger for addictions.
"Even people who've been in recovery for a long time may relapse under the acute stress of losing a job or a home," Mr. Pasierb said. "We also know that can be a reason for first-time use among teens, or for moving from the occasional drink to heavy drinking."
These attempts to numb the pain have a negative ripple effect, he said.
"It becomes a family issue. If mom or dad is drinking, all sorts of family pathology follows."
If you believe a family member is drinking or using, he said, it's important to act right away.
"We hear from families all the time that they knew something was wrong but hoped it would be OK," Mr. Pasierb said. "But hope is not a strategy. You have to intervene."
Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610.