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Supporting Survivors Guide

“My friend was sexually assaulted. Now what?”
A student guide to supporting survivors

Where do I start?

What words should I use?

In what ways can I let my friend know that I still feel and think the same way about them?

How should I act?

What can I do to let my friend know I believe them?

How should I communicate?

Should I make suggestions?

What if my friend is talking about hurting themselves?

Who can I talk to about this?

Where do I start?

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that can be very hard to talk about. A friend who has suffered sexual assault requires the care and support of those who matter to them. How you respond when a friend shares their experience can also affect their healing. It is great that you are looking for guidance on how to provide help.

You can start by saying, “Thank you for trusting me and allowing me to be there for you during this trying time.”

What words should I use?

It is a good idea to use the language the person you are supporting prefers. Sexual violence survivors have used many labels to describe themselves. Some people prefer not to use a specific term whiles others prefer to use the terms “survivor” or “victim”. In this document, we use victim/survivor.

In what ways can I let my friend know that I care about them?

Your friend may have felt ashamed, scared, or sad during his or her experience. Remember that there is no “correct” emotional response. Some people will feel okay after their experience, others may not recover from it. Avoid saying things like “don’t you think it’s time to move on?”

Remind the victim/survivor that the way you feel for them has not changed and that you will always be there for them. Let them know, “you are not alone” and “your feelings are completely normal” (Dalhousie University, n.d.).

How should I act?

You can help by making time for your friend and being emotionally available, whether they want to talk about their experience, talk about other things, or not talk at all.

Make sure you ask before using physical contact to show you care. Asking questions like “Can I give you a hug?” can reassure your friend that they have a choice and provide them with a sense of security and safety (PCAR, n.d.).

It is normal for you to feel shocked or angry about what you hear; but expressing those emotions may make your friend feel uncomfortable (PCAR, n.d.). It may also take attention away from the person you are trying to support and make you the focus instead. Communicate respect, calmness, and acceptance through words and body language.

What can I do to let my friend know I believe them?

  • It is important to let your friend know that you believe them, that what happened was not their fault, and that their feelings and reactions are normal (PCAR, n.d.).
  • Don’t ask questions like “why were you there?” or “how much did you drink?” These questions might imply that you are blaming your friend for the assault. Don’t ask for details like, “what did they do to you?” because answering this question could be re-traumatizing.
  • Tell your friend things like, “Your feelings make total sense to me” and “It wasn’t your fault” (Dalhousie University, n.d.).

How should I communicate?

Sexual assault can leave those who experience it feeling powerless. Allow your friend to set the pace of the conversation by not interrupting and being patient.

It’s okay if they are not ready to share their experiences or feelings. You can help by being ready to listen whenever your friend is ready to talk (PCAR, n.d.).

It’s ok if your friend does not want to talk about what happened. They may be angry, upset, or even still in shock and talking might not be helping. You can let them know that “I’m here for support if you want it, but we don’t need to discuss this now if you don’t want to.” They may prefer to watch a movie or take a walk.

Support your friend’s decisions about what they want to do next. Saying things like “that sounds like a great idea,” can help them regain a sense of control.

Should I make suggestions?

You can support your friend as they make any decisions. Talking to them about whether they feel safe and what can make them feel safe is important. You can also talk to them about what supports they might be able to draw on. Ask things like “Are you safe right now? Do you have any immediate needs I can support you with?” (Dalhousie University, n.d.).

You can provide information about on-campus and off-campus services. You can ask, “Would you like to look at some of the supports and resources that are available?” (Dalhousie University, n.d.). Your friend can make informed decisions by utilizing this kind of information.

If you are able to do so, you may offer to go with them to meetings or appointments.

You can give the person options but be careful not to tell the person what to do. Let your friend know that the right thing to do is the thing that feels right to them.

What if my friend is talking about hurting themselves?

The Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line is 1-888-429-8167. Contact them if you think your friend is in danger of hurting themselves or suicidal. As stated on its website:
The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support callers who present with suicidal thoughts, self-harming thoughts or behaviors, overwhelming anxiety [or] difficulty coping with distress […].

The crisis line also supports families, friends, community agencies and others to manage mental health crisis through education, outreach, and consultation. (Nova Scotia Health, n.d.)

Who can I talk to about this?

The victim/survivor needs to know that what they share with you will stay private. It is important that you do not disclose what your friend told you to others in your network. With that said, it is okay to speak with a professional on or off-campus. These professionals include a counselor, medical professional, harassment & discrimination, or sexual violence advisor.

The service providers are not allowed to share any information shared with them. This would only change if someone were in immediate danger. Ask the service provider you reach out to about the confidentiality rules so you can be sure what you tell them stays private. You are not violating your friend’s privacy if you seek professional help. Instead, you are taking care of your own mental health and/or learning how to support them more.

Reference List

Dalhousie University (n.d.) Your Guide to Responding When Someone Shares an Experience of Sexualized Violence.

Nova Scotia Health (n.d.). Provincial mental health and addictions crisis line.

PCAR (n.d.). A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors.

Acknowledgement

Ibiene Naomi Ibiama 2021
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to the CAPSAP project for allowing me to participate in the project and for providing me with the opportunity to do research and produce this student guideline to supporting survivors. The completion of this project could not have been accomplished without the help and support of Caryn Small Legs-Nagge (Harassment and Discrimination Advisor at MSVU), Emily Macleod (SANE nurse and faculty member in the department of nursing at CBU) and Lyndsay Anderson (Sexualized violence advisor at Dalhousie University) – thank you for your input and advise in bringing this project to life. Finally, I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has helped me complete this research project, whether directly or indirectly.