Steubenville, Ohio has been in the news recently regarding an incident at a high school party. A young woman was sexually assaulted while other young men watched and even video taped. Sadly, this is only one case of many like it around the U.S. each year.
2012 data from the CDC reports that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men reported being raped at some point in their lives. In the Methodist Women's Hospital ER alone, 33 women were seen last year for sexual assault. These statistics are tough to read.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and there's no better time to address the issue head on – one of the key focal points being the need for a strong survivor support system.
Counseling women and men who have been sexually assaulted is not the most fun part of my job. However, I get a lot of satisfaction in helping people through the tough time, especially when others in their lives aren't trained to do so or might not know how.
Unfortunately, the number of patients I see for sexual assault counseling isn't declining. And while survivors of are often scared, not sure where to turn, ashamed and changed, at least they're coming forward to get help. Here are some support basics for survivors and their loved ones.
Where to start:
First and foremost, report the incident to law enforcement and go to the emergency room. Everyone deserves access to a proper and respectful examination, and results will be important should the incident ever be brought to court. The sad truth is, sexual assaults can go unpunished due to a lack of physical evidence.
Methodist Hospital and Methodist Women's Hospital have programs where staff have specialized training as part of the Heidi Wilke SANE/SART Survivor Program (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team). These professionals are not judgmental and can be a great first support step. Here, survivors will get access to a victim advocate from the Women's Center for Advancement (WCA), law enforcement help and other community resources. This could include individual therapy or the WCA's weekly sexual assault support group.
If you're a friend of a survivor:
Often in counseling, survivors need help overcoming how friends and family reacted to the news. If a loved one comes to you with a story of sexual assault, don't be judgmental or respond as an interrogator. It can be tempting to want the details – the who, what, where, when and how of the incident. But chances are, very few people want to relive the experience.
Spare them, and don't ask. These questions are asked during exams and therapy by someone, like myself, who is trained in dealing with trauma. Most survivors simply need to be heard and listened to. Your role is to listen and provide comfort and safety. Maybe for a few hours, maybe a few days, maybe a lifetime.
Methodist Health System, University of Nebraska-Omaha and the WCA are teaming up for a Twitter chat about sexual assault awareness. The event aims to raise awareness and educate people about the resources available. Using the hash tag #BeAwareOutThere, join us on Twitter, Sunday, April 21 at 5 p.m. Personal messages can also be sent to @MethodistHealth if privacy is a concern.
Please join us, and others that share my passion, to bring more awareness to this topic and support our survivors of sexual assault.