Student Wellness: Support for Sexual Assault Survivors

As we continue to look into the issue of sexual assault, it’s important that all of us keep in mind that this does not only affect the victim, but also their friends and family. So today, I want to focus on you, those who have a loved one who has been sexually assaulted. Victims tend to show signs of shock, denial, fear, depression, anger, irritability, mood swings, embarrassment, helplessness, disturbances in eating, inability to concentrate, and resurfacing memories of past abuse, which could be transferred at you. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, and you’re not sure of how you can help your loved one through a time like this. You may be worried about saying and doing the right things, you don’t want to hurt them, or retraumatize them. This is a lot for you to worry about, and it can also have a negative impact on your life and in your relationship.
The most important piece to remember is just to be there for your friend, loved one, colleague, classmate. Show them that you are there for them, and if they need someone to talk to, you are their shoulder to cry on. This is so powerful because sometimes you don’t need to say a word, your presence can often be enough to help them through the process. If you do feel compelled to talk about the sexual assault, then it may help to use phrases like “I’m sorry this happened to you,” “this is not your fault,” “I believe you,” “you are not alone, I’m here for you,” “this doesn’t change the way I think of you or see you.” These phrases can help a victim know that you are there for them and are willing to support them. You could also suggest they get medical and psychological attention, and if you are willing, you can also help them through that process.
There are also some things to keep in mind that should be avoided so as to protect the victim from further trauma. Do not ask the victim about details of the attack, this is something done by a professional who is trained, or the police who need the statement as evidence. This could cause re-traumatization and could send the victim into a spiral that you are not sure of how to alleviate. It is best not to ask why questions, like, “why did you go to that party,” why did not try to hit the assailant and run?” This could imply the idea that it was the victim’s fault that they were sexually assaulted instead of the assailant’s, which could lead to shame. In talking with victim, it is also important to avoid explaining to them what you would have done, or what they should have done. This could again lead to shame and guilt over not trying hard enough to get away, and could lead again to re-traumatization.
Although it is important for you to be there for your friend or loved one, it is equally important for you to take care of yourself. If this topic is too much for you to handle, make a referral to a mental health specialist who can assist them. You can also seek mental health services for yourself, as it can be a difficult topic for you to listen to and talk about. It is also critical that you know your limits, and not to make promises to the victim you cannot keep. Remember, you have your own life, and you also need to take care of yourself without drowning in the issues of those you surround yourself with. Understand that coping is a long process, and if you’re not sure of the information, there are many community and nationwide resources on sexual assault.
For those of you who are faculty or staff, this is your section! As a faculty or staff member, you have the opportunity to help your students seek assistance if they reach out to you about sexually assaulted. Just know that this is a great start, this means that the student trusts you, and is willing to come talk about about something that can be extremely difficult to say out loud. So take this time to help you student through the process, and the first thing you can do is encourage them to talk to the school therapist. The therapist can speak with this student and inform them of the possible steps they can take, and together they can decide what would be the best route to take. Another step you could take is to report the incident to the school’s Title IX Coordinator, who will conduct an investigation of the accusation. But the most important thing you can do for your student is be there for them and support them throughout the process, especially if there will be a formal hearing. If you yourself feel overwhelmed about what your student has told you, seek counseling yourself, and information about how to help someone who has been sexually assaulted.
So, what can you do if you know of a friend or family member who has been sexually assaulted? The simple answer is just to be a support system for them. As discussed in the previous article, there are a number of different avenues a victim can take, and ultimately it is their decisions as to which would be the best for them. Attached to this article is a flowchart explaining the different avenues that can be taken after a sexual assault occurs. Print it out, place it on your refrigerator, on or in your desk, leave it in your care, take a picture on your phone, fold it and leave it in your backpack. It’s important that we all know what we can do in a case of sexual assault, so we can help those we know who have suffered through the experience.

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