Avoid these phrases when trying to help an assault survivor

Well-intentioned reactions might be even more harmful than victim blame, according to a recent study.  An interview with a sexual assault survivor says this fits with her experience. 

Media Contact: Barbara Clements at bac60@uw.edu or 206-221-6706. 
Bobbi Nodell at bnodell@uw.edu or 206-543-7129. 

To people trying to help a survivor of sexual assault, take note. Saying the following could lead to serious harm:

“At least it wasn’t worse!”

“Let’s take your mind off of this.”

“Just move on with your life.”

Even when delivered by well-meaning loved ones, these reactions might cause long-tasting damage, according to an meta-analysis published this month online in Clinical Psychology Review. It will appear in the August edition of the journal. 

The research analyzed data from 51 studies of survivors of sexual assault or other kinds of interpersonal violence. The analysis looked at whether survivors’ mental health was better or worse depending on the kinds of reactions they got when they told others -- family, friends or professionals -- about the assault.

Emily Dworkin, lead author and a senior fellow with the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviorial Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that the way people react to a disclosure of sexual assault matters. A lot.

“Survivors who got more negative reactions from the people they told—things like being blamed, being told, ‘it’s not a big deal,’ or having loved ones pull away—had worse mental health,” said Dworkin.

What’s more, these mental health problems lingered long after getting negative reactions, she added.

“I think most of us know that blaming survivors, like calling them irresponsible or questioning their choices, could do lasting damage,” said Dworkin.

But the researchers were surprised to learn that some well-intentioned reactions might be even more harmful than victim blame. Encouraging survivors to not think or talk about the assault, or trying to distract survivors from their feelings, seemed to be among the most harmful ways to react.

“When survivors need to talk about their feelings, saying, ‘let’s get drinks to take your mind off this,’ could do real damage,” Dworkin said.

In a separate interview, one sexual assault survivor, who was not connected with the study, agreed with Dworkin's findings. Watch her interview here. At her request, the survivor asked to use the  pseudonym "Andie"and has been backlit to protect her identity. 

"I was with someone who I hoped could provide me some comfort, and they said, `How long has it been, two months? Aren't you over it yet?,'" Andie said. "I was hurt by this, and disabled by this reaction."

Although it’s not possible to prove that these reactions cause mental health problems, Dworkin said that this makes sense given what researchers know about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Pushing away thoughts and feelings about a trauma can really backfire and lead to long-term problems,” Dworkin explained. “It’s hard enough to get yourself to stick with difficult feelings until they go away on their own, so when your friends push you to tune out, that could make it even harder.”

Trying to control the survivors’ decisions about their recovery also seemed to be especially toxic.

 “It’s important that loved ones help survivors regain their sense of control in the world,” Dworkin explained. “Things like, ‘you must talk to the police or you have to get therapy’ could really undermine that.”

Dworkin was quick to add that people who react in this kind of way to survivors are usually coming from a good place and are well-intentioned. 

“It’s so hard to see our loved ones in pain, We desperately want to take their pain away or find the quick fix," Dworkin said. "But the problem is, we can’t change that a really awful thing happened.”

Instead, Dworkin suggests being a shoulder to cry on, expressing that you care, showing that you trust survivors’ perspective and choices, and acknowledging that survivors’ difficult emotions are valid.

She said that  we might not be able to fix what happened, but we all have a responsibility to avoid hurting our friends or family members. 

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