CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mention of sexual assault.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, there is help available. At TCU, call the 24/7 confidential counseling helpline at 817-257-7233 or contact Confidential Advocate Ms. Leah Carnahan at [email protected] or 817-257-5225. You can also call the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I had the pleasure to sit down with Leah Carnahan, the empathetic powerhouse behind TCU’s Campus Advocacy, Resources, & Education (CARE) Resource. We discussed the mission of the organization, advice for friends of survivors, and how Leah does it all.
Caroline: Can you tell us a bit about what CARE does and what it offers?
Leah: The CARE office has a two-fold mission. So our mission statement is to support those who have been impacted by sexual and gender-based violence, dating domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stalking. That could be a person who is a direct survivor victim. It could be a friend; it could be someone who is kind of uncertain but wants to help someone. I am a confidential resource. So we’re not required to report identifying information to Title IX or the police.
The other piece of our mission is to provide education and outreach on these same issues and topics. The education and outreach is what you see: yard signs, tabling events, workshops, and presentations. I also oversee the online training that we require all students to complete. I am proud to say that TCU has required those a lot longer than it was required under the law.
Caroline: What is your role in CARE?
Leah: It’s just me. This particular role was created in May or June of 2016. Prior to that, I was an assistant dean in the Office of Campus Life, and we had a victim advocate program that typically covered sexual assault and dating violence cases in a non-confidential role. Then the university, kind of at the urging of students, saw the need for the confidential role.
They basically took that position and made it a separate standalone position with the added confidentiality component. I report to the counseling center. I always tell people I’m an advocate. I’m not a licensed counselor. My master’s degree is in counseling, and so I do utilize some of those skill sets.
The other part of my role is that I advise It’s On Us and The One Love Club. It’s On Us used to be a campaign within student government, and they had a student role who was the director of sexual assault prevention. I agreed that it would be great if it became its own student organization. So I advise those students as well.
Caroline: What’s your advice for supporting survivors?
Leah: My basic things are listening, believing, and supporting. Really listening. It’s human curiosity to want to ask a lot of questions, but try not to, because oftentimes we mean well, but it really can come across as blaming. The trauma-informed training that I do talks about how you shouldn’t ask: Well, did you say no? Did you try to push them off? We’re finding in research that a lot of people experience what they call tonic immobility, which means it’s just how your brain chemicals are responding to the trauma that’s happening. So it’s not a logical question to ask because people are not in a state to critically reason how they’re going to respond. Remind the survivor that it’s not their fault, no matter what they were wearing, what they drank, what they didn’t drink, who they invited over, who they, you know, any of that.
Then supporting them and empowering them. Encourage them to find support, whatever that looks like for them, but empower them to make their own choices. So I’ve heard some really not helpful things from students that their friends have told them like, well, it was that big of a deal you would have reported. That’s not helpful. It’s hard to be the friend because we think this is a terrible person who should be arrested. But if that survivor doesn’t want to report, support that decision. If they do want to report, support that decision. Help them get to resources to navigate that.
What happens is with sexual assault in particular, their power and control was taken from them. And so the kind of thing that I tell almost every student that I meet with is that this was your experience. You had no choice in what happened to you. Now, you can choose what happens next and what you do with that experience. That could be sharing your story, that can be telling others, that can be reporting. That can be just focusing on your own mental health and not doing any of those things. And that’s okay. You should feel comfortable and empowered to do what you think is best for you.
Caroline: You clearly do so much important work here. How do you balance it all?
Leah: This work sought me out. I was actually working in fraternity and sorority life and I did a little bit of this work. I had some opportunities to do some additional training and be a community advocate, so I did some of that in that role. They actually sought me out to apply for that Campus Life position where I was the victim advocate. And then they created this role and asked if I wanted it. We made the name CARE and the mission statement.
I think balance and boundaries are key. I lived on campus and oversaw housing of fraternities and sororities for 10 years. I think that dealing with all the things that come with that weirdly prepared me for this. You have to set up boundaries when you live at your job.
This role is about being able to be present with people and help them through one of the most difficult things they may experience. I get a lot from that. I do other things for my own physical and mental wellbeing. I have a family; I have kids. It’s really easy to have other things to do.
Caroline: What’s one thing you wish all TCU students knew about CARE?
Leah: This seems really basic, but I just want all of TCU to know that it exists. I’m surprised by the number of students who don’t know. I think just letting students know that they do have support, and they do have someone who’s pretty experienced at navigating this. If I don’t know the answer, I’m going to call someone. We exist, we’re here, and we’re more than willing to help students.
**These are highlights of our conversation. Not all information could be included in this article for length purposes.