Yesterday in our weekly staff briefing at the STAR office, we discussed how sexual trauma survivors are more likely to consider and attempt suicide. We asked Nicole, one of our counselors who has over a decade of experience working with sexual trauma survivors, what she thought contributed most to survivors’ suicidal ideation and attempts. Her response?
“I find that it’s most connected to the re-traumatization survivors experience from friends, family, and community response, not the assault itself. That’s why I’m so passionate about the prevention work we do in the community. Not being believed and being blamed for what happened can be dehumanizing and negatively impact survivors’ self-worth–these are the things that come up most when a survivor has considered or is considering suicide.”
Based on this conversation and our entire staff’s experiences working with survivors, below are 7 pro(social) tips for reacting responsibly to disclosures of sexual trauma.
Common misconceptions about false rape allegations have long stripped credibility from sexual assault survivors, especially those who are members of marginalized populations, but you can give it back. It can be hard to believe something so terrible has happened to someone you know, but sexual violence and abuse occur at epidemic proportions. It can be even harder to believe that the perpetrator is also someone you know, but the vast majority of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim, and by association, someone known to the victim’s friends and family.
What can you do? Believe. “I believe you. Thank you for trusting me and telling me this.”
Members of our society are largely illiterate with regard to the issues of sexual violence and mental health, and generally operate from a place of misinformation and misconception. It is not surprising that in this context, survivors tend to question and minimize their own experiences of assault. Also, people expect victims to act or react in very specific ways, but there is no normal response to an abnormal event. Traumatic events release floods of hormones in the body that, over time and when triggered, can result in various emotional and unemotional reactions.
What can you do? Let them know that it’s okay and normal for them to feel whatever they’re feeling. “What you’re feeling is normal and understandable, considering the circumstances.”
3. BLAME THE PERSON WHO COMMITTED VIOLENCE
Regardless of the characteristics of the victim or the details of an assault, there is one thing that almost every survivor experiences: self-blame. These feelings of self-blame are caused by a society that routinely blames victims for the violence others commit against them, and holds people more accountable for being vulnerable than for being violent.
What can you do? Blame the person who is responsible–the person who committed sexual violence. “It doesn’t matter what you were doing, it didn’t give this person the right to do this to you. What they did is unacceptable–this is not your fault. There is no excuse for what they did.”
When a loved one discloses, many people feel powerless at not having protected their loved one. They may shut down because they don’t know what to say or do, or they may react with anger and want to seek revenge.
What can you do? Seek support for yourself to cope with the disclosure of the trauma. When you take care of yourself, you will be able to focus on your loved one and their needs. Survivors of sexual violence have many needs as they work to rebuild their lives and you can play a vital role by just being present. Be someone who listens, and whom they can talk to or cry with. Your support and care can make all the difference. “I love you and care about you. You are not alone. I am here for you if you ever need to talk or need any other kind of support. “
Not that close to the person disclosing to you? Help them identify the people in their life they can go to for support, and connect them with supportive community resources.
Sexual violence is a complex issue. The power of knowledge can help you and your loved ones get through sexual trauma. Educate yourself about sexual violence and sexual trauma so that you can better respond to it. Research local and national resources. Contact STAR at (855) 435-STAR. Share what you’ve learned with the survivor in your life, so that they can feel confident in having the tools to heal.
Many of us want to take care of someone we love when they are hurting or when they have been wronged. However, taking care of someone doesn’t mean taking charge or taking control. Survivors have been stripped of their power and autonomy by their offenders, but you can give it back to them.
What can you do? Let them make their own decisions about medical attention, counseling, and reporting to law enforcement. You can provide information, support, suggestions and resources, but do not coerce or force them to do anything.
7. REMAIN POSITIVE
Healing is possible. It can be a long, difficult journey to recovery, but survivors can live healthy lives if supported by their loved ones and communities in doing so. Remind yourself and your loved one of that throughout the process.
Taking these actions listed here can make all the difference for individual survivors and communities.