LIVING

What Does Counselling Look For Survivors Of Sexual Assault?

11/05/2014 07:08 EST | Updated 11/06/2014 07:59 EST
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Trigger warning: This article contains information about violence which may be triggering to survivors.

What help is there for survivors of sexual assault? How do they begin to heal?

These questions surfaced repeatedly last week as more people online started to shared their experiences of sexual assault in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. A massively popular hashtag, #BeenRapedNeverReported — started by former Toronto Star journalist Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette journalist Sue Montgomery — helped bring the discussion into the spotlight in a way that has been, until now, far too rare for this highly stigmatized subject.

After a rape or assault happens, victims can feel like they are to blame, like they somehow brought it on themselves, says social worker and director of Brampton's Family Enhancement Centre Dawn Griffith.

"It was just a few decades ago when the police would look through your closet, as though saying, "Let me see the outfit you were wearing when you got raped to see if you deserved it,'" she tells The Huffington Post Canada. "Things have gotten a lot better, but still, people are afraid they're not going to be believed, and afraid they're going to get blamed for it."

As one woman on Twitter put it:

But sexual assault is not the victim's fault. "Sexual assault is a violent crime. What a person wore, where they were, who they were with, or whether they were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of their assault is irrelevant. The only person responsible for a sexual assault is the person who commits the crime," according to the University of British Columbia's Student Services website and numerous other support resources for survivors.

Whether or not a person decides to report the crime, the reality of rape and sexual assault is that victims are subject to its psychological aftermath, which can be debilitating. Symptoms of trauma following a sexual assault can vary, Griffith says. They can take on a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including flashbacks, nightmares, a fear of leaving the house and difficulty with intimate relationships. These can persist for years, particularly if the person affected doesn't seek counselling to deal with the issues.

People react differently to sexual assault and depending on the situation, Griffith says. "If this is a one-time incident and the person has a pretty stable background, then we look at it just as a one-time kind of trauma. We can debrief and go over the details first so people can move forward," she explains.

If, as is far too common, the incident is part of a pattern, then it is more likely to trigger previous trauma as well, and more care might be required.

If you are ready to seek help for a sexual assault, it's important to find support from people you feel safe with in a safe environment. Friends and family you trust can help provide this network, but if you don't feel like you can tell someone you know, starting with a rape crisis centre is an option. The counsellors on the other end of a crisis hotline are trained to support victims of sexual assault. The CBC is already reporting an increase in calls to the Saskatoon Sexual Assault Centre in the wake of allegations against Ghomeshi, attributing this to a trigger effect.

From there, continued therapy may help with healing. Once counselling begins, it can take a variety of forms. While some counsellors, like Griffith, suggest cognitive behavioural therapy to give people ways to shift their thought patterns out of negative cycles, others, like Family Service Toronto, may focus more on resolving anger issues that can result from keeping this type of trauma inside, and helping people learn to process it in a productive way.

"Identifying the trauma is always the first thing," says Griffith. "There is something that’s different now that wasn’t there before. Finding ways to make yourself feel safe in your own skin is a priority."

She also notes recent sexual assaults can be a shock to the nervous system, so finding a way to soothe your senses is a priority. "You want to learn how to be calm in certain situations, especially if there's a particular location you associate with the incident. You have to train yourself to remember that that thing happened, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen now.

"There definitely is help," emphasizes Griffith. "With counselling, we can help reduce the symptoms, and prepare people for going forward, so they don’t have to stay afraid, or depressed and alone and isolated."

If you need support for sexual assault, visit the Canadian Association Of Sexual Assault Centres website at http://www.casac.ca/content/anti-violence-centres or call the assaulted women's helpline at 1-866-863-0511.