Trigger Warning: This blog post is about sexual assault and the trauma and stigma that can be attached to it. Sexual assault is different from other types of traumas. If someone told you they were in a horrific car accident, what would your first response be? Maybe, “are you okay?” or “how can I help?” For those who have been sexually assaulted, that is rarely the first response. Even family and friends who are well-intentioned often lead with “were you alone?”, “did you fight back?”, “had you been drinking?” These questions convey doubt and even blame. The unintended message is “If you had been doing all of the right things, surely this wouldn’t have happened to you.”
In fairness, there really aren’t many good things to say when someone has been raped or assaulted. No words magically make it better or put back the emotional pieces that have been torn apart. Sometimes listening, being present but quiet, may be the best option. But many of us are uncomfortable with silence. The worst things people say in those moments likely are not driven by judgment, but by uncertainty – and maybe even the fact that none of us are “immune” from being sexually assaulted ourselves.
Speaking of not being immune, none of us are immune from mental health problems either. And being sexually assaulted definitely increases the likelihood of developing problems with our mental health.
Now, not everyone who is assaulted goes on to develop PTSD or another mental illness. In fact, many of the people who experience trauma, in general, are able to process the events, make sense of the world with a slightly different set of facts and perspective, and continue forward without major problems.
Yet for many, that is not the case. And if you tell someone you have PTSD from being assaulted, or you are so depressed you can’t get out of bed, what do you hear? “Can’t you just get over it?” “Shake it off, don’t let it bother you.” “It’s all in your head.”
This combination – mental health problems stemming from sexual assault – is really a double whammy of stigma. And where stigma exists, people are less likely to seek help, less likely to connect with treatment, and less likely to recover.
In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, take the time to consider the people around you. We know that 1 in 3 American women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 will be raped. Among American men, 1 in 6 will experience sexual violence, and 1 in 71 will be raped. If the person being sexually abused is someone you love, how can you demonstrate compassion and dignity? If you were the person – if you are that person – what do you want someone to say to you? What can they do to support you and help you feel safe?
This month and every month let’s practice listening to each other, without questioning or doubting. Let’s practice showing compassion without contributing to blame or shame. We have the opportunity to help each other break down both types of stigma: the stigma surrounding sexual assault and the stigma around mental illness.