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Healthy Lifestyle

More Than Merely Physical: How To Support the Mental Well-Being of Sexual Assault Survivors

Published: April 7, 2022

Many people unfamiliar with sexual assault tend to think of it as a onetime attack by a stranger on a victim who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The truth is this: While isolated assaults by strangers do occur, it’s much more common for survivors to experience multiple incidents of sexual assault – or unwanted sexual contact – by someone they know. Maybe they’re in an unhealthy relationship. Maybe they were groomed or slowly manipulated to engage in sexual activity they wouldn’t normally consent to.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to understand that a survivor’s pain and suffering are not merely physical. Their mental and emotional anguish warrants just as much attention, and there are ways you can help.


Recognizing the Signs

Is sexual assault happening to someone you love? Some of the signs may vary based on the age of the survivor. Here are some red flags to look for:

Children
  • Physical complaints about their “private parts”
  • Overly aggressive behaviors that are uncommon for them
  • Seductive behaviors that are inappropriate for their age
  • Sudden fear or hesitancy toward someone within their family or well known to their family
  • Sleeping and/or eating problems
Adults
  • Isolation
  • Hypervigilance
  • Sleeping and/or eating problems
  • Alcohol/drug use
  • High-risk behaviors

 

Mental and Emotional Impacts

Survivors often suffer from a lot of pain.

They may experience a variety of physical symptoms, including muscle aches, injuries, fatigue, difficulty walking and stomach/GI issues.

Mentally, they may experience shock.

How did this happen to me?

They may be afraid.

Will they come after me again?

They may be angry.

How dare they do something like this! It’s not fair.

They may be sad.

My body is ruined. I am ruined.

And they may be embarrassed.

I trusted them. How could I have been so stupid?

There’s a flood of emotions that often occurs as a result of assault. The stress and anxiety that typically build can make it challenging for survivors to open up and seek help.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the greatest risk to a survivor’s mental health. It can lead to suicidal thoughts and/or addiction, as survivors commonly self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.


Community Resources

If you suspect that your child or someone else’s has been assaulted, call the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1 (800) 652-1999. Your call will remain confidential.

If you believe your adult friend or loved one may have been assaulted, ask them. But don’t ask for extensive details. Just listen to whatever they want to share, and refrain from passing judgement. Encourage them to seek help from the Methodist Heidi Wilke SANE/SART survivor program. There are also several community crisis resource centers – including the Women’s Center for Advancement, Heartland Family Service and Project Harmony – that can address a survivor’s immediate needs.

The Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program – which serves students in each middle school, high school and alternative program in Omaha Public Schools as well as adults at various community locations – can provide trauma-informed counseling and other resources to survivors and their loved ones.


Staying the Course

Regardless of whether a survivor seems receptive to your advice and encouragement, continue stressing the importance of their mental well-being – even if months or years have passed since their assault. Keep in mind: The average survivor doesn’t seek help for nine to 12 months.

If they deny being assaulted, don’t dismiss your concern. Continue listening. Assure them that what may have happened to them was not their fault; they are still loved and respected; and healing is possible, but it doesn’t go away on its own.

Make sure they know that when they’re ready, there’s a powerful group of caring people, agencies and resources that’s trained, ready and willing to lift them up and help them thrive on their journey toward healing.

More Resources

About the Author

With over 30 years of experience in the mental health field, Ellen McElderry, LIMHP, LADC, has seen firsthand how providing the best behavioral health care can make a positive impact on a person’s life. Now, as the program manager for the Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program, she’s driven to support her team and deliver that exceptional care to our communities.

“I want clients to know that they’ll receive quality care in a confidential setting in the comfort of their own neighborhood and community,” she said. “We’re able to serve people in their school, church, office – or even their home with telehealth.”

See more articles from Ellen McElderry
Ellen McElderry