The first annual Mental Health Symposium was held on May 31, 2013 and what a fabulous event it was. The Symposium was composed of diverse individuals discussing delicate topics and appropriate conduct in clinical situations. The Panels were: Sexual Assault: Sensitive Patient Care for One in Four, Homophobia, Invisibility, and Imposed Silence in the Practitioner’s Office: Implications for the LGBTQ community, and Suicide: Learning to Ask (and Answer) the Hard Questions.
As a Rape survivor, I was asked to participate on the Sexual Assault Panel. Here is my story and more importantly, tips on what helps and what hurts in clinical situations for Sexual Assault and Rape victims.
My friend had been absent from my life for 2 years. He was only in town for a week and I had just stopped by to say hi. I thought it was going to be a friendly visit. Before I knew it, I found myself frozen in a situation I never thought possible. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. It felt like a lifetime movie was unfolding on my television, except this was real life. It all happened so fast – as if someone had pressed fast forward on the movie. And then I was gone from my body – somewhere up in the clouds watching from above as the horrific event unfolded right before my eyes. I wondered if I had died. No, my body wasn’t dead, but I knew he was killing a part of me. I don’t know how long it went on, I have no concept of time, but I did eventually return to my body. And when I did, I screamed as loud as I could. I screamed “no” many times – or was I even saying it? There was no acknowledgement of my plea. Maybe I was just up in the clouds whispering it. The words could have just been sitting on my lips. I shoved him as hard as I could. I didn’t know how much time I would have. I grabbed my clothes and ran for my life.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself in graduate school. I thought I had put the trauma behind me until the man who raped me began trying to contact me again. I found myself in crisis at the student clinic. I was afraid – terrified even since I was due for a new intern. What would she think or say to me? There is such a stigma about rape like the woman wanted it or provoked it. I considered cancelling the appointment, but am so thankful I didn’t. Luckily, my case was assigned to a sensitive, competent, understanding intern and supervising clinician who knew exactly how to handle this situation.
These types of clinical experiences are difficult and especially scary for new practitioners. So what is the most helpful way to conduct oneself for the patient?
- Sensitivity, understanding, and reassurance that your patient is safe at this particular moment
- Creating an environment that allows your patient to share their emotions without asking for the details.
- Saying things like – “This is NOT your fault, you did NOT deserve to be raped, you did NOT provoke this.” Many carry guilt thinking there could have been a way to prevent it, or maybe it was something I said or did – unfortunately our culture supports and reinforces this guilt. You have to remember that rape is about power, not about what the person did, said, or was wearing.
- Be aware of your patient’s body language.
- Ask if there are certain body areas that are sensitive to touch. I don’t mean the obvious areas, for example, maybe the patient was roughly grabbed by their arms or wrists and is sensitive in those areas.
- Empathize with your patient, but don’t OVER empathize or be overzealous
- Checking in continuously with your client to make sure they are okay
- Prodding for details or asking about situational details or circumstances surrounding the event. For example, asking about alcohol involvement, relationships, or any details about the event.
- Making assumptions based on your experience or what you’ve heard about rape and sexual assault.
- Insensitively trying to relate yourself to the patient by saying things like: “Oh that happened to my cousin’s friend’s sister.” Although you may think this is bringing yourself closer to the patient, it’s actually shifting the attention away from that person’s trauma.
- Letting interns, assistants or observers into the room without asking first or without introduction. This is especially true if the patient is getting a back treatment and can’t see what’s going on behind them.
- Dismissing the event or emotions surrounding it. For a survivor, the event or emotions surrounding it may be very present part of their pathology, so don’t ignore it, even if the topic makes you uncomfortable.
- Using the terms in an insensitive way – even around campus and in everyday life. For some reason here more so than any place I’ve been, the term rape is insensitively and casually use. For example, “Wow! That test just raped me!” These statements, especially for future professionals, are COMPLETELY unacceptable!
- Overreacting to the situation For example, saying you’re so sorry, pitying them, saying things like “oh my god – I can’t believe that happened to you!”
- Treating the patient without telling them specifically what you are doing or when and where you are going to touch them.
Additional information is available at NYCC Counseling Services website: https://www.nycc.edu/CommunityHealth_CounselingServices.htm