By the time you finish reading this article, four more Americans will experience sexual assault. The probability that you know someone who has experienced sexual trauma is high. Individuals who are at particularly high risk of sexual assault include children and young adolescents, elderly people — especially those with dementia — as well as individuals with developmental disabilities. Whether the assault occurred recently or years ago, each person has the right to be heard and supported with treatment interventions.
Recent educational campaigns and public discussions are providing broader understanding about the damage caused by sexual assault and sexual trauma.
Here are several ways to support survivors of sexual trauma.
Know the Misconceptions
We can stop the spread of false information about sexual assault and trauma by knowing the misconceptions that exist.
First, sexual assault is often more about power and control than only about sex.
Second, sexual assault may be committed by a person who is not a stranger to the victim. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), in 93 percent of juvenile sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement victims knew the perpetrator.
Further, sexual trauma can have a profound effect on the life of a child or adult. The impact on interpersonal relationships can be serious, immediate and have long term consequences. There are physical and emotional effects of such trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders, as well as depression.
Don’t Blame the Victim
Sexual assault thrives on secrecy and blaming the victim. Statements like “Why didn’t he or she run?” or “They should take sexual defense classes.” can come across as blaming the victim without a person even realizing it, making it more difficult for an individual who has experienced sexual assault to speak out about his or her experience. Studies show the majority of sexual assaults are not reported. Encourage appropriate reporting of sexual assault to authorities.
Support individuals who have endured sexual assault by listening to their narrative and offering to help connect them with advocates and clinical providers who specialize in treating survivors of sexual abuse.
An effective treatment referral could incorporate evidence-based practices, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and other psychotherapy strategies; some individuals can benefit from psychiatric treatment also targeted to co-occurring conditions like anxiety and depression.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), is free and confidential. Trained staff members are there 24/7 to listen, support, answer questions and provide resources. At Centerstone (centerstone.org), we have professionals trained to provide treatment to rape and sexual abuse victims of all ages.
Sexual trauma should not ultimately determine an individual’s future life path. With understanding and support, we can begin to ensure no one journeys on their path to healing alone.
Karen Rhea, M.D., is Chief Medical Officer at Centerstone and a triple board-certified physician in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics.