Back-to-school carries with it a lot of expected stressors — upcoming exams, issues with roommates, cramped schedules. But these aren’t the only pressures college students face. With 1 in 4 college-aged women identifying as survivors of sexual assault, it is not uncommon to have a friend disclose an experience of sexual violence. Receiving a disclosure from a friend can be extremely disorienting, upsetting, and often overwhelming. This mix of emotions can make assisting a friend a confusing experience. What are the best ways to support a loved one in this situation?
- Do assess safety: The first concern when dealing with a sexual assault is the physical and mental well-being of the survivor. Without pressuring the survivor for any specific details, try to gently ask them if they feel safe in their home or workplace, or if they feel like they need medical attention of any sort. During your initial conversation with a survivor, it’s important to remember to pay attention to any clues of mental distress. Depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts are common issues for survivors of trauma, especially in the weeks and months immediately following an assault. If you notice signs of any of these issues, offer resources on both national (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, RAINN) and local (OCRCC, UNC Counseling & Wellness Services) levels.
- Do respect the survivor’s choices: Sexual assault is a crime that specifically attacks a person’s autonomy and right to make decisions about their bodies. By listening carefully to the needs of the survivor rather than making suggestions or decisions for them, you are giving power and authority back to the survivor. This is an excellent way to help them feel that they’ve regained some control and normality.
- Do appreciate the disclosure: Telling others, especially loved ones, about an experience with sexual assault is one of the most difficult things for a survivor to do. The decision to disclose is fraught with many unpleasant considerations: the possibility of reliving the experience during the disclosure, the chance of being blamed or belittled, the worry that they will be disbelieved or excessively questioned. All of these are very real possibilities being faced by a survivor who has decided to disclose. Respect all of these anxieties, and keep them in mind during your discussions. Thank the survivor for the trust they’ve placed in you, and reassure them that you believe them and would never blame them for what happened.
- Don’t get emotional: An emotional response to a disclosure of this magnitude is completely understandable and normal. However, it is best to focus on the needs of the survivor, especially in the moments immediately following their disclosure. An overly emotional reaction such as anger or extreme sadness may be very alarming to a survivor and can make it difficult for them to remain calm. It is also important to keep in mind that the survivor is likely worried about your response and well-being, even in light of their own trauma. Keeping your emotions in check will be one less thing for the survivor to concern themselves with.
- Don’t push for details: When tragedy strikes a loved one, it’s normal to want to understand as much of what happened as you can. While it may feel like it will communicate concern, asking a lot of questions could negatively affect the survivor and your conversation with them. Not only will probing questions serve to make a survivor relive their assault, some questions may even sound to the survivor like blame, even if they were not meant as such. Questions like “How much did you have to drink?” and “Why were you walking home alone?” have the potential to sound more accusatory than caring.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself: Although the safety and feelings of the survivor should be a main concern, it’s important to remember that you can’t help anybody without first caring for yourself. Secondary survivorship can be incredibly emotionally taxing, especially if the survivor is someone very close to you. Make sure to check in with yourself regularly, and don’t get lost in the support you’re offering to your friend. You can also access support for yourself from the OCRCC by calling our 24-Hour Help Line or participating in a support group for family and friends of survivors of sexual violence.
While these are all helpful suggestions, remember that what a friend needs most after a disclosure is for you to LISTEN. They won’t expect you to have all (or any) of the answers. The most beneficial thing you can do is to offer them your non-judgmental and open-minded support and concern.
Camille Zimmerman has been a Companion since 2013. She provides support and resources for survivors of sexual violence and is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.