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Mental Health

How To Be Sensitive Toward Survivors


Trigger Warning: This article contains some topics and information that may be sensitive to people who have experienced sexual assault or related traumas. Read with caution.


     In our current political climate, survivors of sexual assault have to face their trauma on a near-daily basis. With the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the passing of legislation that limits reproductive choice in the state, the conversation of sexual trauma can be found in headlines and political conversation everywhere. In order to maintain a level of respect and empathy when approaching this sensitive topic, we must be aware of the language we use, and the claims we make to avoid unnecessary triggering or further emotional trauma.

    Sexual assault survivors, many of whom are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sometimes experience flashbacks to their traumatic experience in response to certain stimuli which could trigger the memory. These flashbacks are not always a literal vivid image; sometimes they come in the form of anxiety symptoms or panic attacks, characteristic of how survivors felt during the time of the trauma. Regardless of how symptoms present, exposure to triggers can be detrimental to a survivor’s mental health and emotional stability. While it is impossible to ever know every single word, image, sound, or even smell that could trigger a survivor, knowing how to sensitively approach this conversation can help survivors feel more comfortable engaging and trusting others.

    For starters, if you are a sexual assault survivor yourself, don’t feel pressured to engage in any conversation that could trigger you. You know your trauma better than anyone. While sometimes triggers can be tough to avoid, pay attention to trigger warnings and ratings. When watching or reading sensitive material, feel free to leave the room if it proves to be too much to handle. Additionally, you ultimately have control over what kinds of content you see on social media. There are word blocks in place on almost every social media platform, so you can censor your material to fit your needs. Don’t be afraid to unfollow or block accounts that repeatedly cause problems! When it comes to recovery, there is no shame in acknowledging trigger warnings and doing what is best for you.

    For those here to support, make sure to let survivors feel heard when engaging in conversation about sexual assault. The RAINN (Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network) website has laid out some more in-depth information for communicating with survivors, but here are a few of their tips for using sensitive language. First, by using phrases like “I believe you,” or “it took a lot of courage to talk about this,” we are validating the experiences and emotions of survivors.  Furthermore, it is important to make sure survivors know that what happened to them is not their fault, and they did nothing to deserve this trauma. These are necessary measures in building trust with a survivor, especially in a culture with a tendency to believe the attacker or victim-blame. In aiding with recovery, as supporters of survivors, we can only do so much, but if you want to help a survivor in your life, acknowledge that they are not alone and you are there to listen and never judge. Survivors need to feel supported before they can open up about their experiences. Be sure to let them know you acknowledge that their trauma has affected their lives and their emotions are valid.

    If you know that someone you are close with has experienced sexual assault in the past, don’t expect or encourage them to know everything about the Kavanaugh case or any other sexual-assault related current event. For many survivors, watching the hearings or even reading about the proceedings can bring back painful memories that would be better left alone. While staying informed on current politics is important, it is not more important than emotional security. So, if a survivor chooses not to discuss these topics, be aware that they come from a place of self-preservation, not ignorance.

    As of November 6th, a new amendment seeking to ban abortion, without exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the pregnant person’s life, has been added to Alabama’s state constitution. This amendment, currently known as Amendment 2, serves as a trigger ban, only going into full effect in the event that federal legislation Roe vs. Wade is overturned. However, even with Roe vs. Wade in place, this amendment could potentially allow for more TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider) Laws to be instituted, which could, in turn, close down the only three remaining abortion clinics in Alabama. For everyone, but particularly sexual assault survivors, Amendment 2 could cause anxieties about future assaults resulting in unwanted pregnancies with no choice to have an abortion. We must again be accepting if survivors do not want to engage in this topic, but going forward, we also must vote and do everything else in our power to maintain our right to choose. Although the amendment has passed, you can help by donating to funds like The Yellowhammer Fund, which financially help people in need of an abortion, or joining a campaign to help spread the word about the necessity of choice. This issue affects more people than we are aware of, so try to stay informed about candidates’ views on reproductive policy and the extent of the limitations that legislation like Amendment 2 can have on people in the future.

    All this being said, if you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Recovery can take a long time, and sometimes support from friends or other loved ones just isn’t enough. The Counseling Center on campus has excellent, affordable psychologists and other resources to aid the recovery process. If you need immediate help, RAINN has a confidential support hotline for sexual assault survivors with trained staff members to connect you to a resource in your area. Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) any time for local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery, or even just to talk through your experience. Remember, if you are a sexual assault survivor braving this article or any others, we believe you, you are not alone, and help is available near you.     



I am a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Alabama, majoring in Secondary Education: English & Language Arts and minoring in Creative Writing.
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