Whether you are a friend, family member, or Bentley faculty/staff, you may be the first person to notice that someone you care about begins to act in a different way. Never be afraid to ask “Are you okay?” You may be the first person to respond to someone, and in the event that the problem centers on a sexual assault or other sexual abuse, this might be the question that helps begin recovery. First and foremost, obtain immediate help from University Police or a professional if the survivor is injured or unsafe in any way.
Helpful strategies for talking with a survivor
- Believe them. Believing someone when the person tells you he or she has been sexually assaulted is the most important thing you can do. Your immediate reaction can have a powerful impact on their healing, especially if you happen to be the first person the survivor has disclosed to. Always believe them.
- Listen non-judgmentally. Use active listening skills and allow the survivor tell as much or as little of their story as they feel comfortable with. It is not up to you to “figure out what happened” or even understand all of the circumstances or details of the assault. Simply listening is enough.
- Assure them that they are not to blame for the assault in any way. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important to assure survivors that no matter what happened - it was not their fault.
- Protect their privacy. It is up to the survivor to decide who knows about the assault. Do not tell others, even if you think the survivor should or would “want them to know.” Of course, if you are worried about the survivor’s immediate physical safety you should contact University Police.
- Assure them they are not alone. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. Tell the survivor that you are there for them; then follow through by being there to listen and support.
- Use all available resources. Assist the survivor to get connected to campus resources or other professionals who can help. Say, “There are people on campus who are experts in this, who know what to do and who can be trusted.”
- Assure them they can and will recover in time. This has been a traumatic disruption in their life but they will feel differently about things in the future.
- Get help for yourself. Even those with the best intentions can become over-involved with the survivor’s recovery, possibly hurting both of you. Seek advice if you have any concerns about how to help. Staff in the Counseling Center (781.891.2274) or the Center for Health and Wellness (781.891.2222) can help you.
Things to avoid when helping a survivor
- We often want to respond to violence with aggressive action. The worst thing to do is act aggressive around someone with trauma. Avoid saying, “I will hurt the person who did this to you!”
- Don’t ask the survivor to tell every detail about the assault. Survivors often experience additional trauma when asked to repeat their story.
- Don’t say that you know how they feel.
- Don’t evaluate their behavior or feelings by saying “You shouldn't feel, you ought to feel, you're wrong.”
- Don’t ridicule or shame by saying “Why didn’t you fight?” or “This wouldn’t have happened if you…”
- Don’t give unwanted advice by saying “I would have…”
- Don’t interpret, analyze, diagnose by saying “You're doing that now because...”
- Don’t order or threaten by saying, “If you don't do _____, you'll regret it.”
- Don’t give too positive evaluations by saying, “I'm sure you'll be fine, it will all work out.”
- Don’t distract or divert the conversation by saying, “It isn't that bad, let's talk about something else.”
- Don’t discourage the survivor from going to the police if they choose to report the assault.
**Portions adapted from The College of William and Mary. Sexual Assault Resources and Education.