We all want to help our friends when they are struggling or need support. Maybe you’ve helped a friend move from one apartment to another or brought your friend dinner when he was sick. Sometimes it’s easy to step in and complete a task for a friend. Other issues are much more complex than packing a box or following a recipe, though.
It can be challenging to know how to help sexual assault victims, especially those you know. In this article, we’ll give you some tips for handling this sensitive subject, like when to say something, what to say and compassionate ways that you can help.
When should I say something?
Due to the intimate and personal nature of sexual assault, victims often will try to hide their experiences, even from those closest to them. If you become aware of a past or recent experience of sexual assault, it may be appropriate to intervene.
Depending on your role and your proximity to the victim, you may want to express your concern, note changes in behavior, suggest professional services, recommend local resources or engage in the healing process.
You’ll know whether you need to say something if you notice sudden or erratic changes in behavior, such as self-isolation, extreme changes in appetite or sleep, hypervigilance or other symptoms of trauma.
What should I say?
Talking about sexual assault is a brave step for you and your friend, but it’s an action that can have a positive ripple effect. Even if you don’t receive a response at first, opening the conversation speaks volumes.
When you have a conversation about trauma, there are no perfect words. It’s impossible to achieve healing while skirting around discomfort, but it is a balancing act to know when discomfort becomes retraumatizing.
Check out these tips from RAINN on talking about sexual assault.
Express that you believe the victim
Affirm your friend for being brave and sharing the information
Try to relay to your friend that she isn’t to blame for what happened
Share your intent to listen
Say that you feel compassion for your friend and regret that the trauma transpired
Continue the conversation
Your friend will likely open up an initial time, and your response will determine whether that openness continues. Overall, express compassion without judgment.
What can I do to offer help after sexual assault?
1. Understand your role
The first step in helping anyone who has endured sexual violence is to understand and accept your limited role. While we all wish we could solve any issues that arise when our loved one is suffering, you cannot claim responsibility for any of the negative effects that occur.
You have a critical role, and that is being a friend. While you can have a real impact on healing, don’t try to offer therapy or medical advice. Leave it to the professionals.
2. Find professional sexual assault help
Depending on the nature of sexual assault, therapy or counseling may be the most appropriate method of healing. While you surely can be a sounding board for the recovery journey, an experienced mental health professional is best suited to help someone process an event like sexual trauma.
This also includes legal help if your friend is planning to press charges.
While you can’t offer therapy for your friend, you can offer something extremely valuable that a therapist can’t provide: the strong foundation of a long-term relationship. As a friend, your listening ear is a priceless resource. Consider prompting a quieter friend with simple questions. Here are some examples.
How are you feeling?
How is therapy going?
Is there anything helpful you learned in therapy?
What emotions are you feeling most often?
Is there anything that surprised you about how you’re handling it?
What has been the most helpful thing for your healing?
These easy questions are focused on recovery and not on the sexual assault itself, so they won’t be re-traumatizing for your loved one.
4. Accept all feelings
Sexual assault can bring a host of emotions, from guilt to rage, sadness to silence. Your friend may even be struggling with strong feelings about the feelings. For example, she may be frustrated that it’s affecting her so much or confused why she’s feeling so numb. No matter the feelings your friend is going through, they’re all normal.
5. Keep learning
When a loved one goes through an experience of sexual harassment, it’s natural to do what you can to learn about how you can help. Once you’ve already started the conversation, though, you’ll still want to continue educating yourself on sexual assault.
Learn about the signs that sexual assault is impacting mental health, different theories of treatment, the effectiveness of treatment methods, ideas for self-care and more.
6. Continue your friendship
When your friend is in a dark place recovering from a traumatic experience, it’s essential to continue with a sense of normalcy. Even though it may feel strange at first (especially if the experience of assault is fresh), doing normal things can keep your friend from succumbing to an emotional and lifestyle rut.
Keep investing in your friendship, knowing that you may have to make accommodations for her to feel her emotions and process the past. Getting back to normal may take time, but with your help it can happen sooner than you’d think.
Tapestry can help your friend heal from sexual violence. A safe and welcoming setting founded on evidence-based practices can bring peace following a tumultuous event. Get in touch today for yourself or someone you love.