The importance of self-care for survivors of sexual assault and harassment

Student advocate: Girl with hands in air

Self-care is particularly important after a difficult experience, including an experience of sexual assault or harassment. A 2014 study in the Journal of Community Psychology found that support is an important factor in helping people recover from sexual assault or harassment.

The following strategies may be helpful for students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment and their friends:

Acknowledge that everyone copes differently 

All students have different self-care needs. While some students may benefit from meditation, others may prefer discussing their experience with friends.

Help students connect to support

Connecting to support—both professional and social—is a critical element of self-care. Help students connect with resources on campus, such as counseling centers, Title IX coordinators, and chaplains. If you have reporting responsibilities, understand these and be prepared to discuss them with students.

Promote healthy boundaries

Students may find it draining to constantly discuss sexual assault, especially when it dominates the news cycles. Emphasize the importance of taking a break from watching or reading the news, as well as breaks from social media. Remind them that this doesn’t mean they are uninformed or apathetic; it’s about self-care.

Remind students to engage in their favorite activities

Encourage students to stay connected to activities and groups they care about, even in a limited capacity. Give them opportunities to relax, have fun, and remember that they’re still the same person that they were before the sexual assault or harassment.

Listen with an open mind 

mother consoling daughter

If a student chooses to share an experience of harassment or assault with you, do your best to listen with an open mind. Allow the student to lead the conversation. Avoid asking questions that sound blaming, such as, “Were you drinking?”

Focus on the student’s feelings

When you hear about a student’s experience, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, including shock, anger, fear, and sadness. However, keep the focus on the student’s feelings, even if they’re different from yours.

Seek support yourself

Supporting a student who has experienced sexual assault can be challenging and emotionally draining. Make a plan for your own self-care, and consider reaching out for support.

“Many survivor advocacy groups offer secondary survivor therapies or support groups for loved ones of survivors. These can be fantastic resources and can aid in the healing process for survivors and those closest to them,” says Jolene Cardenas, director of communications and development at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Denver.

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Article sources

Jolene Cardenas, director of communications and development at Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Denver, Colorado.

Megan Thomas, communications specialist, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Dworkin, E. R., Ullman, S. E., Stappenbeck, C., Brill, C. D., et al. (2018). Proximal relationships between social support and PTSD symptom severity: A daily diary study of sexual assault survivors. Depression and Anxiety35(1), 43–49.

Hébert, M., Lavoie, F., & Blais, M. (2014). Post traumatic stress disorder/PTSD in adolescent victims of sexual abuse: Resilience and social support as protection factors. Ciencia & Saude Coletiva19, 685–694.

Orchowski, L. M., Untied, A. S., & Gidycz, C. A. (2013). Social reactions to disclosure of sexual victimization and adjustment among survivors of sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence28(10), 2005–2023.

Ullman, S. E., & Peter‐Hagene, L. (2014). Social reactions to sexual assault disclosure, coping, perceived control, and PTSD symptoms in sexual assault victims. Journal of Community Psychology42(4), 495–508.