Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault
People who have been sexually assaulted often experience a range of emotions, including not having any reaction at all. No two survivors will feel exactly the same way about their experience. It is common for a survivor of sexual assault, regardless of how long ago the assault occurred, to experience some of the following:
- Anger or rage
- Depressed or irritable mood
- Loss of interest in most activities
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Changes in energy level
- Nightmares, flashbacks
- Fear and anxiety
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Excessive guilt, self-blame, or feelings of worthlessness
- Physical symptoms
Helping a friend in crisis
In general, someone is in crisis when the stresses they are dealing with overwhelm their ability to cope. Stress can take the form of any challenge or hazard. As such, stress is associated with growth and change; it is also associated with injury and loss. People deal with stress by problem-solving, social support, relaxation, and other coping skills. Usually there is a balance maintained between the level of stress and one's coping efforts.
A crisis occurs when this equilibrium is disrupted. Like a struggling swimmer who panics and grabs the lifeguard around the neck, or the depressed person who drinks more alcohol, a person in crisis often loses perspective and the ability to solve problems in organized and realistic ways. A person in crisis needs extra support and a reduction in stress to re-establish their equilibrium. As a result, friends of the person in crisis often feel new demands and challenges in their relationships.
Here are some steps you can take to support a friend who has been affected by sexual assault:
- Believe your friend unconditionally. Don't ask a lot of probing questions and don't express skepticism. Expect a friend in crisis to be confused and don't criticize.
- Let your friend know he or she is not alone. Offer support, offer your time, and remind your friend of available resources.
- Let your friend know it is not his or her fault. Don't blame your friend. Don't start searching for things your friend should have done differently.
- Empower your friend. Help your friend understand and consider options, let your friend make decisions, and offer to go along for support.
- Ask your friend what they want from you. You don't have to guess or try to read your friend's mind; go ahead and talk about what kinds of support they need. Keep talking about this because your friend's needs will change over time.
- Tell your friend directly when you see a serious problem. Your friend may have lost perspective or may be struggling to pretend that things are not that serious. When you have good evidence for your concerns, go ahead and share it with your friend. The additional information will probably help them consider more realistic options.
- Get outside help when needed. In a crisis, your friend needs more help, not less. A trained therapist may be essential to helping your friend work through the assault and resume more effective coping. Your friend may need other forms of support, like dropping classes or moving to a new dorm. Your friend may also need limits on self-destructive behavior following an assault, such as excessive drinking, risk-taking, or suicidal behavior. There are many resources available to help.
- Don't exclude other people from helping your friend. Don't try to do the job of people who have training to do it (such as therapists). If you do all the problem-solving, your friend may miss opportunities to learn new ways of coping. They may also be reluctant to confront important but painful issues in therapy if these issues have already been discussed with you.
Staying a friend
Only you can provide the opportunities for companionship, closeness, relaxation, and fun that your friend desperately needs. Affiliation helps anchor people and stabilize their perspective in a crisis. Attachment and intimacy give people meaning; play and enjoyable activities offer respite and renewal. People who are depressed need "a break" from their depression. People in crisis feel alone and lost; they need a sense of connection and they need feedback. By staying in the role of friend, you can help meet these needs. The following suggestions will help you stay an effective friend over time:
- Pace yourself so you can stick with your friend for the long run. Don't be a friend that disappears two weeks after the assault because you have taken on a role so lopsided that it cannot be sustained. Lopsided relationships can lead to anger, hurt, and resentment.
- Keep the rest of your life on track. For example, it is okay and necessary for you to keep up with your class and study obligations. You also have to keep up with other friends and relationships.
- Say "no" when asked to do something that is more than you can handle. You have a right to take care of yourself, and you don’t want to let your friend down by taking on responsibilities that you cannot handle. Don't be afraid to redirect your them to a therapist or other support person.
- Pay attention to your own needs and express them.
- Insist your friend seek help if the crisis escalates to the point that you are worried about your their safety or long-term well-being.
- Seek support and outside help for yourself if you find yourself deeply affected by the crisis. It is important to acknowledge that you may be experiencing trauma as well.
- Try to get the lopsided relationship back on more even footing. Your friend needs a chance to listen to your concerns some of the time and to be a friend to you as well.
Learn About Resources
There are many resources available to assist survivors with the trauma of a sexual assault (pdf). These resources can also assist you in your role of being part of a support system. Remember, if your friend refuses to seek help and the crisis appears to be worsening, you may have to seek resources. Often, people who have been in crisis look back with true appreciation to the friends who cared enough about them to get help when they needed it. As a friend, you cannot be faulted for seeking help when genuinely concerned.
Learn more about resources for survivors of sexual violence.