How to Support Survivors
The first person sexual assault survivors tell about their experience has a profound impact on their healing process and future disclosures. Research from campus climate surveys administered on 65 campuses to over 14,000 students shows that when survivors disclose their experience, they most often turn to close friends. This underscores the importance of fostering a peer culture that is supportive, non-judgmental and well-equipped to offer resources to survivors (Buelow, 2015). Check out the following information and this guide: Secondary Survivors, Friends and Family: When Someone You Know is a Survivor.
Follow the ABCDEs of Advocacy:
Affirm, Believe, Connect, Direct, Empower
Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
- "I’m so glad you are sharing this with me."
- "It's not your fault."
- "I'm sorry this happened."
It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts - your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur - everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
- "I believe you, and I am here for you."
- "I believe you, and am sorry this happened to you."
- "You are not crazy, what you’re describing is a common reaction to…"
Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
- " You are not alone."
- " How can I support you best? Are you safe now?"
You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information.
- "Let’s brainstorm together what to do next."
- "You have options, would you like me to tell you about the different resources available?"
Let the survivor talk about their experience if they come to you. This will validate their reactions and help them feel more “normal” and less alone. Some survivors blame themselves up about what they did or didn’t do. It’s important for them to understand that they were having a trauma response, much of which is dictated by the brain. Focusing on their resilience & survival is affirming.
- "I'm honored that you trust me enough to share this with me."
- "It took a lot of strength and courage for you to....[seek help, report, tell me, etc.]"
- "You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation."
- "Whatever you did to survive was the right thing because it worked."
Want to Learn More?
"Depending on where you have been getting information about sexual assault, you may have heard the term secondary survivor. A secondary survivor is someone who is close to the survivor and may experience some of the same side effects such as personality changes, depression and emotions related to the trauma. There is no right or wrong way to feel after a survivor discloses to you that he/she was sexually assaulted. You may experience some of these side effects or you may not. The important part to note is that it is normal. If you are not experiencing these reactions, it doesn’t mean you are a bad friend. If you are experiencing them, it doesn’t mean you are taking anything away from the survivor" (As One, 2017).
Check out these resources to learn more about secondary survivors, supporting friends and taking care of yourself:
- As One Project: Helping Friends and Family Members of Survivors of Sexual Violence Move Forward AS ONE
- RAINN: National Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and Their Loved Ones
- RAINN: Self-Care for Friends and Family
- How to Help a Friend Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted