Last Friday a leaked tape of Donald Trump talking to Billy Bush in 2005 about how he treats women managed to perfectly epitomize rape culture.
That same day, thousands of women turned to Twitter to catalog their histories of sexual assault, abuse and harassment, using the hashtag #notokay. I watched over the weekend as my Facebook news feed filled with the disgust, ire, and sadness of my (mostly female) friends, some of them sharing their own personal encounters with rape culture in action. And then yesterday, just when it was especially needed, we recognized World Mental Health Day.
Before I was raped, I knew nothing about the effects of trauma. I had no idea that a single, distinct traumatic event that might have been only "20 minutes of action," in the now infamous words of Brock Turner's father, could ripple out through a person's emotional life for years afterward and affect brain and nervous system functioning. I didn't know I would spend 7 years on a loop of depression, anxiety, rage, terror, frustration, grief, and melancholy, desperately crawling in the dark looking for an exit. Because it turns out that treating people like objects or property-- completely disposable, their sole purpose for your own pleasure or control-- is the most traumatic, alienating, and (literally) dehumanizing thing you can do to another human being. Therefore it's important to acknowledge not only the occurrences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment, but the mental health ramifications as well.
Here are some things I suggest from my own experience to help support the mental health of survivors.
1. Believe them. They have already lost autonomy over their own bodies (during the assault). You have no right to take away their experience of it or the name they have given it.
2. Reassure them it's not their fault. Even in the 21st century, the cultural shame and blame placed on victims is overwhelming. Offer your support and let them know they are not to blame for any reason.
3. Let them cry. You can't "fix" it. This is something they have to work through. It may be painful to witness, but grief is a healthy part of the process. Ask if they'd like your company.
4. Do your research. Check out Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma to learn about the science behind trauma's pervasive toll on the body, brain, and nervous system. This will help you understand so much more about what your loved one is going through.
5. If they are open to talking with a therapist, I highly recommend seeking out one who specializes in trauma and PTSD. There are therapies other than "talk therapy." EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) has worked for me, but it may not be right for everyone.
6. No matter how much time has passed, do not tell them to "get over it." Again, their experience does not belong to you. You have no control over when or if their pain or anxiety ends, nor do you have a right to. Healing from trauma can be a lifelong process.
7. Treat them how they should be treated: with kindness, compassion and respect. Just because someone is suffering from the mental health effects of trauma does not mean they are weak.
RAINN has provided a list of national resources for sexual assault survivors and their loved ones.