Survivors react in a variety of ways after an assault. Do not assume that someone you care about should be responding to what happened in any particular way. The severity of the assault, an individual’s coping strategies and skills and non-judgmental support following the incident will influence the recovery process. Everyone is different. One of the first things you can do is learn about the wide variation of responses you may see.
The following may be part of the initial and long term healing process:
- The person may be fearful and not want to be home alone or walk to class or work alone.
- Focus and concentration may be affected. The person may be easily distracted and then frustrated that they are unable to get back to their academics or employment the way they feel they should.
- Sleep patterns may be interrupted or changed; there may be an inability to sleep for any length of time or the person may experience nightmares. A survivor may also sleep much more than usual which provides some relief to the emotional turmoil they feel.
- The survivor may develop an inability to trust, and that may include close friends. She/he may not want physical/sexual intimacy. A survivor should be allowed the time to decide when they want to resume close physical contact.
- Your friend may quickly get angry at you for little mishaps. Understand that the anger is a result of the incident and because you are there (and the accused is not) you may be the target of the emotional release.
- The survivor may pull away and become distant.
In order to help your friend or loved one heal:
DO . . .
- Believe them. People rarely lie about rape or assault.
- Listen fully and allow for silence; you don’t have to talk every time they stop talking.
- Accept the wide range of feelings and experiences a survivor may have, including shock, denial, sleeplessness, intrusive memories or thoughts about the assault, inability to focus, and feelings of guilt, despair, depression, fear, anxiety, self-blame, and anger. Many victims appear to have their feelings in control, only to become extremely upset again within a short time.
- Ask how you can help.
- Help your friend regain a sense of control. Support them in making decisions about whom to tell and how to proceed. Offer to accompany your friend in seeking medical care or counseling, or in contacting the police, but do NOT insist.
- Remind your friend that the incident is NOT their fault.
- Offer shelter or companionship so they don’t have to be alone.
Do NOT . . .
- Ask questions that imply that the rape was your friend’s fault, such as “Why did you go to his room? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you run away?”
- Touch or hug the person unless you’re sure they are comfortable with physical contact.
- Act in ways that are upsetting. Be wary of phrases like “If I could find the creep, I’d kill him.” Although you may be trying to be supportive, that type of comment might upset the person who needs your help even more.
- Tell anyone about the assault without permission.
- Tell them what to do. Instead, help them explore the options. Among the complex decisions a survivor will have to make are whether to report the assault (to the police or the Title IX Coordinator) and whether to press charges. This website provides many sensitive and experienced resources that someone can turn to for help in thinking through the options and implications.
- Assume you can do it all. Despite your best intentions, there are limits to what others can do to help. A counselor with expertise in treating victims of rape and sexual assault can play a very important role in your friend or co-worker’s recovery.
Additional information about helping someone is available on this fact sheet (pdf).