So often survivors will not mention their abuse in an effort to protect others, thinking it will upset the listener too much or that the person sitting across from them won’t know how to react. Check in with yourself on what feelings come up when sexual abuse and assault are mentioned. Is there personal work you need to do to be a calm and empathetic presence?
Create safe spaces.
Do your best to create a culture of respect and safety. With news stories of churches covering up abuses and ministers abusing their power, it is important to acknowledge these things and stand against them. Despite the staggering statistics of how frequent abuse is, it often remains something spoken about so little. We need to start conversations about sexual abuse and assault, urge our organizations to create and follow policies to help keep each other safe. Most importantly, make it known you are a safe person to talk to. We can’t ignore the world we live in and part of that is committing to be different.
Listen & Believe.
The reaction a person receives the first time they disclose is critical. It often sticks with them and sets the trajectory of their recovery. It could mean the difference between getting support and deciding to hold the secret for years if not for a lifetime. It can be incredibly scary for a survivor to speak up, so it is important to fully listen, let them know they are believed, and that they are not alone. Encourage them for their bravery in speaking up.
One of the most important things you can say is, “This is not your fault.” Often survivors replay the events in their heads, sure that they did something to cause the assault or abuse. Thoughts like, I shouldn’t have trusted them, maybe I sent the wrong message, if I would have behaved better/differently maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Reassure that no matter what it was not their fault, and nothing they did caused this.
Give back control.
Someone who has survived abuse has been through something where their control over their own body and life was taken from them. It is important to give it back--give choices, make sure their voice is heard and valued, let them be in control.
Assist in staying grounded.
If someone is disclosing to you for the first time, or still in early phases of healing, it is possible they will begin to disassociate while sharing their story. You can use grounding techniques to help them avoid being re-traumatized by their memories. Ask them to rub their hands together or try doing some rhythmic tapping together. You can remind them they are safe with you, take some deep breaths, or ask if they would like to take a break to get a glass of water or a candy before continuing.
Understand how trauma impacts the brain.
It can be useful as a helper to understand what clients might be experiencing, and to be able to share that information when appropriate. Trauma affects memory. It’s not unusual for there to be gaps in memory or trouble putting together a narrative or timeline. Imagine throwing a puzzle in the air- pieces land everywhere, some face up, some face down, some get lost under furniture. This is what it feels like for an assault victim to try to recall the events of an assault, only bits and pieces are apparent, some are lost, and all is scrambled. It is incredibly frustrating, confusing, and can invoke such a feeling of hopelessness in survivors. When our body feels unsafe, it takes over. We’ve all heard of Fight or Flight, but what is less known is the Freeze response which is common in a sexual assault. It is an automatic response of the body to try to protect itself. It can be confusing to survivors as they look back and wonder why they didn’t react differently. Understanding trauma and its effects can be empowering for survivors, understanding that their body was doing its part to survive. There is nothing they could have done differently.
Honor how the individual has survived.
Enduring a trauma like sexual assault can leave individuals feeling unsafe in the world, unable to trust others or themselves as they did before. Often, survivors are left dealing with intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares. Dealing with these symptoms can lead to coping behaviors all across the board. It is so important to understand that these are survival mechanisms that have helped the individual get through. While they may be unhealthy or causing things in their world to fall apart, they are also what has helped the person survive and get to where they are today…the point where they are able to speak up and start to heal.
If you have an individual disclosing abuse or an assault, you will often need to address safety. If you are dealing with child sexual abuse it is your responsibility to report to the police or your local child protection agency right away. If you are working with an adult survivor, there are many factors that the survivor will be taking into consideration when determining what is safest and best for them. It is very important to trust the survivor in this situation. It is always their decision whether or not they would like to report to authorities. If they are in an ongoing abusive situation or do not feel safe you can help them know their options and put together a safety plan identifying their support people, their local police, and domestic or sexual assault center. It is always a good idea to consider a medical exam to make sure the survivor is physically alright. Most hospitals have specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners to help and who can also collect forensic evidence if desired by the survivor.
There is such healing power in connecting. You can encourage individuals to connect with their local sexual assault center. Often there is advocacy, counseling, support groups and other resources available. If you are unsure of your local agency, you can call our national hotline as a first step and they should be able to direct you to your local agency. There are also many online resources and support groups available. Start compiling your list of local agencies, resources, and support groups now so that it is robust and ready should you need to make referrals. Begin with these:
National Sexual Violence Resource Center https://www.nsvrc.org/
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) https://www.nsvrc.org/
Becca Marsh, LMSW is a master’s level social worker with experience providing crisis counseling, medical advocacy, individual and family therapy, as well as leading support groups for survivors of sexual violence. She spent over four years working as an advocate and a Child and Family Therapist at her local sexual assault center.