After someone experiences sexual assault, the emotional and psychological impact of that trauma can be much more devastating than the physical injuries. It’s common for a survivor of sexual assault to feel alone, afraid, anxious or sad. They may also feel guilty, ashamed and responsible for the assault if they are victimized by someone they know or trust. Without support to help them manage these feelings, it can be very difficult for the survivor to recover and move forward with their life.
The World Health Organization reported that a person who has experienced sexual assault is three times more likely than the average person to suffer from depression, and they are six times more likely to suffer from PTSD. It’s not uncommon for survivors to turn to substance abuse to numb their pain, especially if they don’t feel believed or supported by their family and friends. A survivor of sexual violence is 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol as a way to cope, and they are 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
Like many survivors, 26-year-old “Jennifer” was struggling with the aftermath of her trauma when she began attending Safe Harbor’s sexual assault survivor support group. Jennifer had been in and out of counseling for 10 years as a result of several sexual assaults that she suffered as a teen and young adult. She had been suffering from depression and anxiety, and like many survivors of sexual assault, she experienced recurring nightmares and appeared to lack motivation in her daily life. Jennifer was unsure if joining the group would help her learn the skills to overcome these issues, but she was willing to give the 12-week sessions a try.
About halfway through Jennifer’s time in the group, it was starting to become clear that the support she gave and received from other group members had helped her find a sense of renewed purpose and meaning. She realized she was not alone in her healing process. She openly shared her insights and actively embraced all the new coping strategies that she was learning in the group, which helped her to express her anger in a healthier way. Jennifer started to gain more energy, and her recurring nightmares no longer haunted her. She also became more aware of the impact that trauma had on her body, and she continually sought out ways to help herself feel better physically.
Participating in the support group gave Jennifer the courage to address another issue that she had never disclosed to her previous therapists – she struggled with substance abuse. When Jennifer shared this with the group, they were supportive of her and helped her to not feel ashamed for keeping this part of her life a secret. The group’s facilitator helped Jennifer to understand that she had been trying to cope with her pain and dull her memories in the best way she could, but now she had healthier strategies in place to help her recover. Holding onto guilt, the facilitator said, would only stifle her progress. Receiving this support from the group and the facilitator was profound for Jennifer, because it shifted her healing journey onto a path that no longer involved substance abuse. In turn, she found the strength to address part of her healing that she had never confronted before.
At the end of Jennifer’s time with the group, she shared, “I have learned and grown more in the last 12 weeks than I have in the last 10 years since my first sexual assault.” Jennifer continued her individual healing with a private therapist, and she is currently pursuing graduate studies to become a helper in the field.
For survivors like Jennifer, finding support through counseling at Safe Harbor can enable them to heal from the pain and trauma of the past, and can empower them to reclaim their lives. Recovering from the physical and emotional devastation of sexual violence is not an easy task for a survivor, but they should never have to feel alone.
If you would like to talk to someone about an experience with sexual or domestic violence, please call our confidential 24/hour hotline anytime: (804) 612-6126. To learn more about Safe Harbor’s counseling services, click here or call our office at (804) 249-9470 ext. 12.