Providing Support

Supporting a Student Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted or is in an Abusive Relationship

 

  • The student may be worried about being disbelieved. It is important to reassure her that you believe her disclosure. Keep in mind that sexual assault or relationship abuse can occur regardless of gender or sexual orientation and to avoid making assumptions.

 

  • The student may be worried that the violence was her fault and that she is to be blamed.  Try to help the student explain why she believes it is her fault; you may need to respond with understanding that she wishes there was something she could have done to prevent the assault. She may also be reassured to hear you say that no one ever deserves to be assaulted; however, she may take little comfort in that if she is using self-blame to regain feelings of control over personal safety.

 

  • The reported assailant may be someone you know. Eighty to ninety percent of sexual assaults on a college campus are committed by acquaintances. If a student reports abusive in a relationship, you may know both parties.  If you know the reported assailant, you may struggle with your own feelings of disbelief that he could be capable of such behavior. However, false reports of assault are very rare. 

 

  • The student may be immensely helped by you or another trusted support person accompanying hir to appointments.  This may entail an Emergency Department visit or next day appointment at Student Health Services. Brainstorm with the student about possible help and support from friends, especially if ze’s concerned about coping alone.

 

  • Individuals’ coping strategies can vary. Some find talking about the assault helpful and others do not. You may want to let the student know that you are available to her at any time she may want to talk about the experience. Even if she chooses not to discuss it still check in with her. It is important to acknowledge that this is a stressful time.

 

  • There are psychological and medical risks that may follow untreated sexual assault or relationship violence.  Many students attempt to minimize or deny their experience. This approach may make them unwilling to get necessary medical and emotional care. If the student is unwilling to follow-up with medical evaluation and counseling, be as persuasive as possible and try to help him keep his appointments.  Encouraging the student to talk to LB and helping make care options accessible for the student can help him feel more comfortable accessing care.

 

  • You may have your own questions and concerns. Please feel free to contact LB, the Assistant Director for the Respect Program, at (404) 727-1514, via email at Lauren.Bernstein@emory.edu.

 

  • If the student is experiencing abuse in an intimate partner or dating relationship, help her plan for safety.  There is a customizable safety plan and additional information available on the Respect Program’s website at http://respect.emory.edu.  Help the student determine ways to stay safe, whether or not the student chooses to stay in a relationship in which there is abuse.  While you should express your concern for the student’s safety, relationship abuse is complicated, and telling the student to end the relationship may actually create more danger for her.

Providing Support

 

Consider the surroundings:

  • Does the student feel safe right now? Is this area private or confidential?  What would help the student feel more comfortable?
  • Does she want someone else there, a glass of water, a closed or open door?
  • Make sure to turn your full attention to the student, including turning off cell phones and diminishing distractions.

 Things you can say:

  • “Thanks for coming to see me or telling me or calling.”
  • “Take your time.”
  • “What is your biggest concern right now?”
  • “What’s on your mind?”
  • “You’re safe here.”
  • “What would help you the most today?”
  • “You have support at Emory.”
  • “No one should have to face something like this alone.”
  • “How are you feeling?” 
  • “No one asks to be sexually assaulted or abused.”
  • “You did what you needed to do to make it through.”
  • “Feel free to say whatever is on your mind.”
  • “You’re not burdening me, I’m here to help.”
  • “We don’t have to figure everything out at once. Let’s take it one step at a time.”
  • “I believe you.”
  • Nothing. Be comfortable with some silence and pauses.

 Things you can do:

  • Have an open, welcoming stance. 
  • Sit near the student on the same level, avoiding talking through barriers like a desk.
  • Explore options with the student instead of giving advice.  She is the best expert on her situation, and this can help her/him regain a sense of control.
  • Focus on immediate health and safety issues.  It can be overwhelming to consider all of the possibilities at once, and you want to start with those immediate concerns.
  • Give written information and referrals to ensure that the student has the information, as he may be too traumatized to fully remember the conversation. If it’s safe to do so, emailing can also be helpful.
  • It can be challenging or emotionally draining to support someone who has experienced something traumatic. Make sure to take care of yourself. Consult with LB. 
  • Minimize future contact with the perpetrator or help the student plan for her safety if she is maintaining contact.  Mediation is not an option in situations involving assault or abuse. Do not suggest that they have future conversations or contact.
  • Keep the focus on the student who has come to you.  Do not threaten violence or other retaliation against the perpetrator or focus what the perpetrator might have been thinking.
  • Ask permission if you think it would be appropriate to touch or hug the student to provide support.  This might be a challenging time for the student to be touched.
  • Set a limit to the conversation and ensure follow-up to avoid having the student retraumatize himself by continuing to retell the story.
  • If the student is going to go to an emergency room after a recent incident, ask if she has showered, changed clothes, or eaten anything.  If not, encourage her to wait until after going to the hospital.  Also, do not provide medication unless you are a medical professional.
  • Keep your focus on the survivor, even if you have experienced abuse or sexual assault yourself.  You should have places to disclose this and process through, but mentioning it to the student can redirect the focus to you or can make her feel she needs to do what you did to cope.

  Each person reacts to trauma differently, but here are some possible reactions students might experience:

  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Feeling detached or unconcerned about others
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises
  • Feeling on guard and constantly alert
  • Having disturbing dreams and memories or flashbacks
  • Having school or work difficulties. 
  • Trouble eating or sleeping
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, feeling edgy
  • Severe headache if thinking of the event
  • Failure to engage in exercise, diet, safe sex, regular health care
  • Using substances more
  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable, agitated, or having outbursts of anger/sadness
  • Blaming oneself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached