How to Support a Friend/ Family Member After a Sexual Assault

No one anticipates the day their friend of family member calls in distress after a sexual assault. Nor does one anticipate that they will be raped or assaulted. Yet, the prevalence of sexual-assault is prevalent, especially among female college students ages 18-24. Male college students and transgender students are also at higher risk. Chances are, most of us will encounter friends and family members who will need our support. It can be challenging to know what to say.

How does one respond in such a difficult and emotionally triggering situation?

Here are some tips to help when talking to someone-you-care-about.

  • Listen & Believe
    Listen in a non-judgmental manner. Be patient and affirming. “I believe you”. “It is not your fault”. “I am here for you”. Remember that your friend or family member has reached out to you because they trust you. Believing one’s story helps reclaim some of the power that was taken and move towards healing. Questioning is not helpful because the survivor may feel worse, blame themselves, and internalize shame. Questioning ‘Were you drinking?” or “What were you wearing?” only reinforces negative internalized messages that blame victims who have been raped or sexually-assaulted.
  • Be Patient.
    Your loved one may not be ready to talk, seek help, or make a report. Support your friend/ family member with their options. Encourage them to explore choices with an advocate. It will take time to recover from sexual trauma and there is no “timeline” of what the recovery process will look like for everyone. Do not probe or pressure one to tell their story. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. Respect that.
  • Connect with an Advocate.
    Free and confidential help is available that can help provide support and assist with options for next steps. Be informed. Rape Help MN is a local resource that can help connect to local advocacy services based on your address, including local shelter options. http://rapehelpmn.org/. National Resources include the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) & online chatline: hotline.rainn.org/online. Advocates for rape and sexual assault survivors have special training that will help when accessing medical and legal steps. Rape crisis counselors and sexual assault advocates can help offer resources for physical and emotional safety.
  • Get Medical Attention.
    It is important to get medical attention, including medical forensic exams as soon as possible. Being informed about survivor-resources, including medical privacy laws is helpful as forensic exams/ evidence collection can be completed even if one is unsure about making a report to local law enforcement. STI testing and emergency birth control are other areas to consider seeking medical attention. Offer to be with your friend or family member while they seek medical attention and/ or make a report. Your presence and emotional support are so important.
  • Encourage Self-Care.
    Your friend/ family member will need extra care and support at this time, and so will you! Model good self-care. Going for a walk outside, journaling, positive affirmations, creating a safe/ comfortable environment, and seeking therapeutic support are all options.
    If your friend or loved one is considering suicide, the Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress. 800.273.TALK (8255). They also offer prevention and crisis resources. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
  • Help Support One’s Healing Process. Listen, believe, and be patient. Healing takes time. Provide support & encouragement. Help connect your loved one to resources—advocates, social workers, medical, legal, and mental health professionals. Take care of yourself as you help support friends and family who have been impacted by rape and sexual assault.

Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC 

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