Survivor Support: A Few Things to Keep In Mind

Given the statistics on sexual and gender-based violence in the United States (and, for that matter, around the world), it stands to reason that most readers of this blog will, at some point, meet or know a trauma survivor.  They may or may not disclose this trauma to you, which means that much of the time, you may not know, which is why basic issues related to respecting trauma survivors should always be at play, such as not making rape jokes, adding trigger warnings to things (especially in settings where a survivor cannot necessarily leave the discussion), and not making comments that effectively blame victims for the trauma they have survived.  That’s not me saying every word out of your mouth has to be politically correct, or that well-meaning people don’t ever mess up.  It’s just a reminder that in a world where there is a good chance you could be interacting with a survivor of trauma, you should always be respectful of the way our culture places people at risk and not make the problem worse.

That said, I periodically get questions about what to do when someone does disclose a trauma.  I want to preface this by reminding readers that I am not a social worker or a licensed psychologist, I was a rape crisis counselor who provided immediate support to individuals on a volunteer basis.  This means that my expertise is limited, and if you are close with a survivor of any form of violence, I would fully recommend that you seek further resources than what I am about to give.  This post is meant to provide a basic toolbox for that moment when you are scared that saying the wrong thing could make it worse, and saying nothing is not an option.

1. Do not be judgmental.

That seems kind of obvious, but many people don’t realize what, exactly, comes off as judgmental.  Don’t ask a lot of questions regarding the circumstances of what happened, because it doesn’t matter if they were drinking or what they were wearing or how long they and this other person knew each other or why they couldn’t leave.  It does not matter.  Accept whatever information the survivor feels comfortable disclosing to you, and accept that they may not feel safe saying any more.

2. Remind them it’s not their fault.

Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault.  Relationship violence is never the survivor’s fault.  Abusers are the only ones at fault for the abuse they perpetrate, but in a society that will ask the questions I just said not to ask, in a society that looks for the perfect victim and blames anyone who might not fit that narrative, it is easy for survivors to internalize the idea that if they had just done something differently, this might not have happened.  Remind them that this is not their fault, and that you know that it’s not their fault.  It’s good for people to know someone is in their corner.

3. Respect their decisions.

Following a traumatic incident or experience, there may be any number of decisions to be made.  If you and your friend are comfortable discussing their options, you can make yourself available for that, even help them do the research to see what those options may be, but remember that the decision is theirs alone.  Get a SANE exam or don’t, report the issue to the police or don’t, file a restraining order or don’t…all of these questions need to be left to the survivor.  It’s important to restore as much control and autonomy to the person as possible, and to make it clear that they have both the ability and the right to be making these decisions, even if they are not the decisions you would personally make.

4. Remind them that they are not alone

This kind of falls in line with just about everything else I’ve been saying, but it’s worth mentioning separately because it is easy for survivors to feel isolated and scared.  Make it clear that you are here for the person, and that they are not alone.

5. Respect their privacy.

If someone trusts you enough to disclose their trauma to you, that is wonderful, but it also comes with some degree of responsibility.  Do not disclose the details of their trauma to anyone without their permission.  It doesn’t matter if you think they should tell their significant other or you think someone should call their mom-~-again, that is their decision.  This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to a trusted confident and say, “A friend of mine disclosed a trauma to me last night and I’m feeling really worried about them”, because that doesn’t actually give away anything about who they are or the details of what happened, but you absolutely should not say “My friend W was assaulted by this guy P last night at X fraternity party”-~-this fundamentally does not respect the survivor’s privacy or their ability to choose who knows about what happened.  This is especially important because being a survivor is often a stigmatized status, and the individual deserves the right to control for that stigma.

6. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.

People in caretaker roles often forget that they need to take care of themselves as well, but if you are going to support a trauma survivor, please keep in mind that secondary trauma can be real, and that you may experience emotional consequences from taking care of them.  Remember to take the time to read, relax, and take stock of your own feelings and capacities as you navigate supporting someone you care about.  If you need to, find someone who can support you, including a counselor or a friend (as long as you can talk to them without violating the survivor’s privacy), and make sure that you are conscientious of how navigating your experience with this may spill over into interactions with anyone you are supporting.

As always I will end this post with a couple of resources, in case anyone needs them:

RAINN has an online hotline where survivors and secondary survivors can turn to for support, which can be accessed here.

For a list of online resources to help secondary survivors, see here.

For a list of SANE (sexual assault nurse examination) programs (where survivors can get often free exams and have forensic evidence collected), see here.

For a basic guide to legal options for survivors of relationship violence, see here.

Remember that the resources you may need will change based on the circumstances you are addressing, and that these resources will not be able to answer every question.  Take the time to learn whatever information you find pertinent, and again, don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way.


~ by Randi Saunders on February 23, 2015.

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