In a week where front pages and news alerts were full of harrowing stories of violence against women, how can we best support survivors in our lives who may be triggered by the constant reminders of their trauma?
With Saturday night’s Dispatches documentary and a coinciding Times article detailing allegations of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse by comedian Russell Brand, it’s a difficult time for anyone affected by gender-based sexual violence.
The weight of these stories may feel particularly heavy at the moment, but this isn’t the first week like this.
Every few months, mainstream stories emerge of male violence against women – think back to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, R Kelly’s sex trafficking conviction, or Stephen Bear’s conviction for revenge porn. For many of us, our own trauma was rehashed by the stories we saw plastered on front pages, or overheard talked about on the radio.
Of course, these stories need to come out and need to be witnessed by society for any real charge to start to occur. But, how can we best ensure that survivors feel supported after being triggered by these news stories?
From my own experience as a survivor, and through my own research talking to other survivors, I believe there are a few things we can do as friends or family members of those affected by sexual violence:
Ask us if we are okay
You might be wondering whether it’s okay for you to reach out to someone, perhaps in worry that you’ll be broaching a subject too sensitive to talk about. The easiest answer to this problem is to directly ask us if we’re okay, and whether we want to talk about it.
The reality is that most of us will be thinking about it already.
As one survivor, Melanie*, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘It’s the worst when people treat you like you’re too delicate – how you approach the subject matters, and always let the survivor lead the conversation.’
It means so much to survivors, who often feel so isolated and alone when upset or triggered by a story, to know that someone is thinking about them. It could be a text or a phone call, but any form of contact will do wonders for someone struggling in silence.
Whether a survivor is open about their experiences or not, it’s important to show that you’re there to listen to them.
Give us power to decide what we look at
We may want to look at all the details of a case, or we may want to not look at the news at all. We all have different responses to trauma.
Be careful not to share news stories in spaces where survivors may be taken by surprise – for example a group chat or in a work meeting.
If you do share the news, get into the practice of including trigger warnings to help survivors protect themselves.
Equally, don’t immediately tell survivors ‘not to look at the news’, but ask them what they want to look at and how you could help them hold that power.
You could offer to tell them the basics of a story, helping them avoid the most excruciating details.
Or, you could offer to be with them in person or on the phone whilst they digest the information.
Some people will be numb, some people will be very distressed and physically upset – both are normal trauma responses.
Whether we want to look at the new stories or not, at some point we will need to be relieved from the deep pain and furiosity we’re feeling.
Ask how we’re feeling (can you see a pattern forming?) and if we want to do something to take a break from consuming the news.
As Melanie told me, ‘Sometimes we want to talk about it, and watch some awful TV and not think about it’.
Maybe you could watch your favourite show together, cook for them or go on a nice walk. They may not want to talk, or they may want to talk about something completely different.
Survivors deserve comfort and care, and you can help them find it.
How survivors have responded to the news
Survivor Melanie* tells us:
‘Don’t expect everyone to react the same way, all of our trauma responses are different – some of us will be distraught whilst some of us will be numb. Everyone is different, so communication is key.
‘What I hate is when people spring it on you in the group chat, or when you’re having your morning Zoom – don’t presume that that’s okay; try to use trigger warnings.
‘It’s awful when people don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything at all, I need someone to be upfront and ask me if I want to talk about it.
‘Let the survivor lead the conversation and don’t try to force anything upon them.
‘Workplaces should have awareness in place on how to talk to their workers about this – whether that’s being careful about talking about it, or inviting people to come to you if they’re distressed and need support, or just being aware that lots of people won’t be working at their best during this time.
‘Some people will be numb, and some people will be very distressed and physically upset – both are normal trauma responses, so don’t expect that there’s a particular right or wrong way to react.’
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.
Ask how you can help in the long-term
Asking how a survivor is feeling right now is deeply necessary, but it’s also important to ask them how you can help them in the long-term.
After they feel safe and have recovered from being triggered, you could ask your loved one what you can do to help them in the future.
Do they want you to ask them specific things next time a story like this breaks? Do they want you to offer to walk them home or help them pay for a taxi/bus back to their house when you’re next out?
Let them think about it for a while, and tell you in their own language what you could do to help them feel safer.
Men, particularly, should think about this advice – every time one of these news cycles erupts, it is usually women shouldering the weight of checking in on one another.
If you’re a man with women you care for in your life, who either identify as survivors or not (and more of them probably do than you may know), take the responsibility to see how you can support them.
Get angry and join the fight
We, as survivors, are angry most of the time.
This anger, along with all the other after-effects of surviving violence, is exhausting. So, we need people who haven’t experienced direct sexual violence to join the fight for change and justice. We need friends, family members and colleagues, especially those who are men, to start speaking up when they hear rape jokes or when another news story comes out about the horrific abuse of women at the hands of powerful men.
If you’re out in public and you see someone being harassed, step in to help (see this page of tips from Cambridge University).
Be there for the women you care about, call out misconduct and harassment, and refuse to be part of the problem by turning a blind eye.
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
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