Sexual assault is a horrible and deeply traumatizing experience, and it affects nearly half a million people in the U.S. each year.
Among women, who are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, 1 in 6 individuals will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape sometime in their life. For men, the number is 1 in 33.
Unfortunately, sexual assault is a problem even in our own community. For Sexual Assault Awareness Month back in April, our staff created an interactive display at our Marion County outpatient office. The display provided a number of teal awareness ribbons and invited visitors to pin one to a wreath if they or someone they knew was a victim of sexual assault. By the end of the month, every ribbon had been pinned to the wreath.
Survivors of sexual assault often continue to suffer long after the assault itself. They may feel ashamed and alone, psychologically isolated from the rest of the world. They may feel as though recovery is impossible and their pain will continue forever. If you are a survivor of assault, we want you to know that you are not alone, there is hope of recovery, and behavioral health organizations like Cummins can help you—if you’d like to be helped.
In this blog post, we’ll explain how you can begin your journey of healing and regain control of your life after a sexual assault. We’ll be aided by advice and insights from Tara Wilkins, our Marion County Outpatient Team Lead, who is passionate about helping survivors of assault and abuse.
Isolation: The First Barrier to Recovery
Many survivors of sexual assault struggle with feelings of isolation. This may seem ironic when we consider just how many individuals suffer from assault each year. But the truth is that despite its prevalence, sexual assault still carries a large sense of stigma for its victims.
“Some people think that if this happened to you, then you must have done something wrong, you must have done something to warrant this,” Tara explains. “And because of that, there’s so much shame involved. When you’re going through this, you’re thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Or, ‘I wish I would have done this differently.’ Or you don’t want to talk about it for fear of being judged.”
This fear of judgment often leads survivors to keep the assault to themselves, which can have the unfortunate effect of making them feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood by their friends and loved ones.
But as statistics show, survivors of assault are not alone. Many others have gone through the same experience and can relate to the situation. Although it’s often difficult to speak out about an assault, doing so can help you find support and break down this sense of isolation.
Tara says, “There’s so much power in a ‘me too’, because it happens to more people than we realize. And by sharing that, and how you’re overcoming the adversity, and all those things, it helps move you from ‘I’m a victim and this happened to me’ to ‘I’m surviving and thriving now.’ “
Finding Hope After an Assault
Even with understanding and support from loved ones, it can be hard for many survivors of assault to find hope for a better future.
Any form of sexual assault is a horrific violation of a person’s body and mind. This sort of violation often leaves scars. It might trigger long-lasting feelings of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. It’s only natural for someone to lose hope under these circumstances. The good news is that, once again, statistics show that people do recover, and hope can be regained.
“You know, I love a model in one of the books we use for our women’s therapy group,” Tara says. “It’s called the Spiral of Trauma and Healing. Essentially, it just depicts what everyone encounters, which is at the beginning, a trauma happens. And then you have this downward spiral where you feel very confined by, in this case, a sexual assault. It just really grips hold of you and impacts your life, and so the spiral gets tighter on its way down, because a lot of intrusion and avoidance and all these other things are happening. And then once you enter treatment, and you begin to work on your recovery journey, then you’re on this upward spiral of expansion and recovery. And I think that’s a really great depiction of what happens.”
The Spiral of Trauma and Healing (pictured below) provides validation that recovery is possible, though it does take time. As Tara mentions, seeking behavioral health care can be very helpful for your recovery journey. Another option is to join support groups that provide education and tools to help you heal.
Tara adds, “We have a Women’s Trauma Group at our office. You don’t have to be a victim of sexual assault to participate, but many people there are survivors. We use Trauma-Informed Yoga in there, and we do a lot of psychoeducation to give them tools to help them self-regulate and feel safe. So at Cummins, that’s one way we do that. And I often refer out to other agencies, to a specific support group, a therapy group, or things like that.”
How Behavioral Health Services Can Help
As we’ve said, sexual assault can often create difficult mental health challenges for survivors. There is no shame in seeking out help to overcome these challenges. Therapy is a safe place to discuss painful memories and to learn coping skills for dealing with trauma.
One of the best parts about therapy is that most organizations now offer many different modalities of care, so you can work with a therapist to find the types that work best for you. Tara elaborates: “When I first started at Cummins, if you wanted to treat someone with trauma or sexual trauma, you had Cognitive Processing Therapy, which is an evidence-based practice approved by places like the VA, or if you were working with kids, you had Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. We now have so many different things. We have therapists in every location trained in EMDR, which is a phenomenal tool. We also have opportunities to do Shame-Informed Therapy, which is one of the things that I use frequently with my survivors, and Internal Family Systems Therapy.”
At Cummins, one of the most important aspects of therapy involves giving survivors control over the services they receive. “One of the things we do is when we get an intake, you know, we’ll assign providers, but I think the most fundamental thing that happens is putting this person in the driver’s seat,” Tara explains. “I’m not going to say as a therapist, ‘Oh, you’re here for this, so we’re going to use this method.’ I really like to lay out all the options that someone has available to them, let them know the pros and cons, and let them choose.”
Having permission to control their own care can be comforting for anyone, but we believe it’s especially therapeutic for people who have experienced an assault. “At some point, their control has been taken away,” Tara says. “They didn’t have control over their body. They didn’t have a choice. And so this is one small, tangible thing I can do, to say, ‘This is your choice. You’re in the driver’s seat.’ We as therapists are saying, ‘I understand what happened to you. I understand how this can make you feel. And we’re going to give you as much control as possible with this.’ “