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Speaking about a sexual assault is not an easy task to do. The literature suggests that when a disclosure of a sexual assault was met with; criticism, judgement, silence, deflection or minimisation. The individual who experienced the assault will then think that everyone will treat them this way when mentioning the sexual assault. This increases the risk of the individual to never disclose this situation with anyone else. It is imperative to note that processing the assault and exploring the way forward is important for the psychological wellbeing of the individual who experienced the assault. Below are four interventions you can do to help someone who discloses a sexual assault.

  1. Express empathy not sympathy

Empathy is when an individual metaphorically wear someone else’s shoes in which one can relate to what the other is experiencing. Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune. Sympathy also includes a wish to see someone in a better position by comparing the situation to a worse one. Sympathy can leave an individual feeling misunderstood and abandoned in their time of need.

Do not say – I’m so sorry to hear about this but at least person X passed through this, so you have nothing to worry about! (Sympathy)

Okay to say – This sounds very difficult to be carried by yourself.

2. Victim Oriented Approach

When thinking about your approach when someone divulges a sexual assault, never judge the individual according to; what they were wearing, how they were acting, whether they were intoxicated, or what time of the day it occurred. Take the individual as they present themselves in a manner which is non-judgemental. It is imperative never to blame the individual for what happened.

Don’t forget it takes a lot of courage for an individual to confide in another about certain experiences which were shameful to them

3. Ask what they need right now.

This comes as a shock to some, however it is actually very empowering. When someone discloses something extremely emotionally laden, ask the individual “what do you need right now.” The answers can range from a hug, to a cup of tea, to simply just staying with them in the moment together, amongst others.4

4. Direct them to a professional who has previous experience in working with similar situations

Exploring the possibility together of seeking professional help from a mental health practitioner who has experience working with similar cases would benefit the individual greatly. However, do not force this on others, as to start the process of healing is the choice of the individual who experienced the sexual assault. Remember that everyone has a different healing process and the timing of such processes are different.

To summarise, be kind, be patient and be present when someone allows you to experience their pain.

References:

  • McCart, M. R., Smith, D. W., & Sawyer, G. K. (2010). Help seeking among victims of crime: a review of the empirical literature. Journal of traumatic stress, 23(2), 198–206. doi:10.1002/jts.20509

Karl Grech is a counsellor. He offers counselling to both individuals and couples within Willingness. He can be contacted on karl@willingness.com.mt or call us on 79291817.