Last fall, Safe Harbor joined forces with Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond through the “Campus Alliance to End Violence” (CAEV), a three-year grant-funded project to enhance the schools’ ability to prevent and respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus.
The CAEV alliance gave Safe Harbor an opportunity to work directly with the student population through the creation of a VCU campus-based counseling support group, open to all student survivors of sexual assault. Katie Copty, a sexual and domestic violence counselor with Safe Harbor, said the participants who joined the closed 12-week group she began to facilitate in January represented a range of schools, ethnicities and ages. Most of the participants had never heard of Safe Harbor, and some were unfamiliar with Richmond. Several were afraid they would be asked to share the graphic details of their experiences with sexual violence.
“At the beginning we clarified that this is not a group for telling the details about your trauma, but more of meeting you where you are now and picking up from here,” Copty said. “I could see a lot of people breathe easier and say, ‘I feel better knowing I don’t have to share everything because it’s really painful to do that.’”
Copty said that once the participants begin see the group as a supportive, open and encouraging space, the first person starts sharing a little bit, and then everyone else starts sharing a little bit, too. Some of the students had experienced sexual violence in college, but others had been victimized outside of campus, or during their childhood. Many shared the relief they felt in knowing they were not alone.
“We talk a lot about education about trauma, common reactions, and for some of them it was the first time they had heard that and the first time they thought, ‘This is normal, I’m not the only one who goes through this,’” Copty said. “And to see as each one of them shared their experience, other heads nodded like, ‘I know how that feels, because I’m in those shoes, too.’”
By the time the group ended along with spring semester, each participant had identified a friend, family member or person they could turn to for continued support. The members had bonded so much they exchanged phone numbers and made plans to catch up over coffee next semester. Copty reported that everyone in the group showed a reduced trauma score on their post-group Trauma Symptom Inventory assessment, which they had used to measure the severity of their trauma symptoms when the group began. She recalled one participant who said she really wanted to see her assessment results as milestone of how much she had grown and healed since the group began meeting in January.
“This group, at least, was not about digging up the past and rehashing what happened to you, but meeting you where you are and figuring out how we can move forward,” Copty said.