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How to Spot a Signal for Help, and How to Respond

Learn smart responses to help someone while ensuring their safety

By Allison Thomas | DomesticShelters.org

Help is available for survivors of abuse, but it isn’t always easy (or even possible) to reach out when they need it the most. For example, calling a hotline or even the police aren’t options if a survivor is being closely monitored by an abuser. This has been especially true amid pandemic lockdowns, where many survivors and abusers are not leaving home for work or social gatherings, and it’s precisely why a covert new way to call for help has arisen in the last few months.

Learn more about this discrete signal if you need it—or create your own—and how to recognize a signal and help someone else.

Use (and Recognize) #SignalforHelp 

Increased isolation due to COVID-19 and the growing use of video communication led to the creation of the #SignalforHelp campaign, launched last spring by Women’s Funding Network. The campaign is centered around a hand signal that survivors can use in person or on video calls to communicate that they feel threatened and need help at home. The signal is performed by covertly raising the palm of your hand to face the camera, tucking in your thumb, then lowering your fingers to cover it. This video shows how a survivor might use the signal during a video chat on Zoom or FaceTime.

Take Action—But Do It Safely

If you see a friend, family member or coworker use #SignalforHelp, what should you do? Start with the survivor’s safety in mind and don’t respond during the video chat. Instead, reach out in other ways that will be more difficult for the abuser to monitor, such as text, social media, WhatsApp, or email. Ask general “yes” or “no” questions to help reduce risk and make it easier for them to respond, such as:

  • Are you safe?
  • Can I be a part of your safety plan?
  • Do you want me to call 911? (This is something you should ONLY do if the survivor asks you to.)
  • Can I call a shelter on your behalf?
  • Should I search for services to help and call you back? Call Martha’s House 863-763-0202
  • Should I keep checking in on you?
  • How else can I support you?

It’s important to only take actions that the survivor has asked you to take (or approved of via your yes/no questions). Make sure they know you’re there to support them and that they can ask for whatever they may need.

Other Ways to Signal For Help 

#SignalforHelp can be a lifesaving tool, but fortunately it isn’t the only one. Because if an abuser is closely monitoring a survivor or confiscates their phone or computer, a plan B may be needed. So, what are other safety signals survivors can use to communicate covertly that they need help? The specific code will need to be worked out in advance between a survivor and a trusted friend or neighbor based on their relationship, proximity, etc. For example:

  • Pick a real-life signal. “If you see my porch light on, please come over and check on me.”
  • Use coded language. “If you message asking to borrow my slow cooker, I’ll follow up with yes/no questions to help you.”

And if you’re worried that signals or code words that are being used more commonly might be recognized by an abuser, create your own. Make it something easy to do and recognize in a variety of situations, and keep it just between you and your friend to ensure your safety and theirs.


It is easy to ignore this message. Please don’t. We and the thousands of people who use this non-profit website to prevent and escape domestic violence rely on your donations. A gift of $5 helps 25 people, $20 helps 100 people and $100 helps 500 people. Please help keep this valuable resource online.