You just received a call that is difficult to process. Your good friend has been sexually assaulted. What do you do? What do you say?
Well first of all, just listen – without any judgment. Your friend is understandably distressed emotionally. He/She will most likely waver between shame, guilt and self-blame through anger and frustration at the perpetrator who has just inflicted a great violation.
Let your friend know that all these emotions are valid and normal considering the circumstances.
What your friend does NOT need to hear is any comments or questions about what he/she was wearing, drinking or doing at the time of the attack.
Has your friend gone to the ER or contacted the police? If not, this would be a good time to offer to take him or her. But be careful not to insist. Your friend has just experienced a major and personal ordeal. Not all victims are ready to face this.
Offer to visit your friend and provide comfort, reinforcing the message that it is not her/his fault. Might you be able to be on call anytime your friend needs to talk? If so, then say so. In addition, share with your friend that there are many resources to help.
Whether it is a hotline, professional help, etc., let her/him know you are available to assist in finding numbers and addresses.
When helping your friend starts to weigh you down:
“Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.” 
Symptoms of STS include the following:
- Social withdrawal
- Sleep issues
- Illness and physical ailments
- Chronic exhaustion
- Lack of boundaries
- Loss of creativity
- Inability to listen or focus
- Lack of self-care
Who is at risk for STS?
Mainly professionals who work directly with traumatized victims (especially children). Risk does seem to be greater among women and individuals who have high empathetic natures. In addition, those who have unresolved personal traumas and are helping others with their suffering.
I have been in training to become a Victim’s Advocate for Alternatives to Violence and we had a specific night devoted to the discussion of STS and what to do when and if we begin to experience it. Self-Care is continually discussed throughout every training we took and understandably so.
Self-care can be something you might suggest to your friend, but it is highly recommended that you practice it as well when helping a friend who has suffered the ordeal of Sexual Assault. Some suggestions were:
- Coloring- we did a whole lot of coloring as we learned about domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and human trafficking.
- Talking to someone when we need to.
- Bubble baths
- Bike rides
- Setting boundaries
- Reading inspirational books
- Walking in nature
- Going to the salon
- Eating right
- Fitness programs
So if you find yourself being called on by a friend in desperate need, do all you can to be there for him/her. But remember to take care of yourself, lest you find yourself harming the two of you due to self-neglect.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the theme for 2016 is “Prevention”. Click here for more information.