Written by Emma Mellett
Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, sexual harm, sexual harassment
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are major health and welfare issues in Australia; we also know that mental health affects so many aspects of our lives. So, we wanted to better understand the mental health implications for victim-survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH).
The statistics show that almost two million Australian adults have experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15. This is an issue that disproportionately affects women, with 1 in 2 subjected to sexual harassment and 1 in 5 subjected to sexual assault. 1 in 20 men have also experienced at least 1 sexual assault since the age of 15. When you take a closer look at the issue, the intersection with other minority groups also becomes clear (and even more concerning). For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Change the Course survey revealed that within Australian university communities, students who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, LGBTIQA+ and students with disabilities were more likely to have been subjected to sexual assault or sexual harassment*.
One of the other things we know is that most survivors would have been in a known, trusting relationship with the perpetrator, and the sexual assault or sexual harassment was a betrayal of that trust. This can cause tensions within friendships groups or families and can also have a silencing effect on survivors; they might not be sure whether they will be believed and supported by the people in their lives who also know the perpetrator.
If you are reading this and have experience with sexual harm, or know someone who has, firstly there are a huge range of support services available to you both at UniSA and in the community – head to the end of this article for more info on these. But the number one thing we want you all to take away from this article: it’s never the survivor’s fault. Survivors may wonder if they are to blame in some way for what happened because of the “victim blaming attitudes” which have been around in society for so long. Responsibility always lies with the person who perpetrated the sexual harm.
With 30 years’ experience in crisis response and counselling for survivors of SASH, UniSA Counsellor, Sharon Lockwood, is our in-house expert when it comes to survivor-centric and trauma-informed approaches to SASH services and training. She lent her considerable expertise to us for this article in providing tips and info for survivors and friends,
Lockwood importantly notes, ‘You won’t always feel like this. It is so important that survivors know that no matter how overwhelming things feel now it can and will get better with time, support and information about the effects, healing process and reporting options available to them.’
So, considering that so many of us have been or know someone subjected to sexual harm, what kind of impact does this have on mental health?
‘People subjected to sexual assault or sexual harassment may experience a range of effects, and there is no predictable way that everyone “should” expect to feel – responses are as unique as people are, but there are some common effects people may experience which can impact their mental health, such as sleeping difficulties, intrusive thoughts about what happened, appetite fluctuations, concentration difficulties and forgetfulness or short-term memory loss,’ explains Lockwood.
This can have a huge impact on the ability to keep up with study and/ or work commitments. Plus, the intensity and duration of the range of reactions that people can experience varies as they come to terms with what their experiences mean for them, and who they can trust and feel safe with as they move forward.
Lockwood’s number one tip to victim-survivors, in looking after their mental health, is being kind to yourself. Lockwood said, ‘The effects of sexual harm can make people wonder if things will ever go back to normal. Have patience for the time it can take to heal from the effects of sexual harm.’
Some of her other key tips include:
- Spend time with the people in your support network you know you can rely on and trust because it is too difficult to work through this on your own.
- It can really help to talk about your struggles with someone who provides you with unconditional acceptance and support. It can also help to talk things through with someone like a counsellor who understands the range of effects that sexual harm can have and is independent from your circle of friends and family. All UniSA students can access free and confidential counselling at UniSA or in the community (head to the end of the article for a list of support services).
- Try to strike the balance between time spent focusing on working through the effects of the sexual harm and what this means for you as well as continuing to spend time doing the things you enjoy.
- Try to maintain routines, if possible, particularly around sleep and food. Sleep and good nutrition are critical building blocks for physical and mental health.
Everyone involved in a survivor’s support network can contribute to their healing by supporting survivors to feel safe and to make whatever decisions they feel they need to make without criticism or judgement. If you haven’t been subjected to sexual harm but know someone who has, Lockwood also has some tips and steps you can take to support your family member or friend:
- Offering non-judgemental, unconditional acceptance and support is vital. If you’re not sure about how to offer support to your loved one don’t be afraid to ask them directly about what they would find helpful.
- Provide choices and options for people – for example, ask them ‘would you like me to ask you about this whenever we speak or wait for you to bring it up in conversation?’ Survivors often say that it can become “the unmentionable”, that their friends or family know about it, but don’t ever ask how they are or bring it up in conversation. Or it can go too far the other way too, that people only see the survivor through the lens of the experience of SASH and keep asking/ checking in on them and assuming them to be more fragile than they actually are.
- It may also be the case that there may be certain places they don’t want to go to or activities they no longer want to do, because it has a connection to their experience of sexual harm. So, understand this and discuss alternatives rather than leaving them out of social activities. Social isolation will not help them to heal, but maintaining social connection certainly will.
- Nurturing a connection to hope is another essential form of support that allies/ family/ friends can do to support their loved one. Messages of hope like, ‘things will get better in time, and I am here to support you through this’ can go a long way towards keeping that hope alive.
- Sometimes the way we describe the effects of sexual harm can acknowledge the significance of the range of impacts it can have, but leave little room for hope and post-traumatic growth. For example, messages like, ‘you will never get over this or never be the same again’, or in reference to the criminal justice system, ‘perpetrators get let off (i.e., not convicted), but the victim gets a life sentence.’
Remember that the sexual harm is what was done to them – it is not who they are, and your loved one is still the same person they were before this happened and they need time and your support as they heal.
During September, you will also have another way to help other students out. The National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) is an independent survey running throughout September (6 September – 3 October 2021). It’s collecting data on the scale and nature of student experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
The Social Research Centre (SRC) who are running the survey will be randomly selecting 10,000 UniSA students to participate. So, check your student emails from 6 September to see if you have been asked to take part. It is important that we hear about the full range of students’ experiences. This means hearing from people of different ages, sexualities, genders, cultures, degree pathways, modes of study, and countries of origin. We want to hear from you, whether you have or haven’t experienced sexual violence, coercion or harassment of any kind. If you don’t get invited to participate via email, you can still share your story from 6 September via the nsss.edu.au website.
While this is an undeniably heavy topic, and an intense and overwhelming experience for victim-survivors, Lockwood wants you to know that these feelings can and will change over time. ‘One of the most satisfying aspects of my counselling work with SASH survivors over the past 30 years is that it is such a privilege to witness and be able to play a part in people’s recovery journey from the effects of sexual harm.’
Disclosing and/or reporting an incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment:
You will be believed and supported if you disclose your experience of sexual assault or sexual harassment. We can talk about the reporting options available within and external to UniSA and any interim measures that can be put in place to enable you to feel safer so that you can remain engaged with your studies.
It’s important you know that you have control of what action you take (including no action) and you can change your mind at any time. You do not have to make a decision quickly and it is important that you make the decision that is right for you. Whatever you decide to do, you do not have to go through this alone.
If you wish to disclose or report an incident to the University, we encourage you to make contact with one of our designated First Responders who are specially trained to respond to disclosures or reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment and can advise you of your options: unisa.edu.au/firstresponders
If you choose to make a formal report, you can do so via our simple online form: unisa.edu.au/sashreport
We have counselling available at UniSA and there are also free, confidential counselling options available within the community too. UniSA counsellors can help too if these or other personal issues are affecting your studies. UniSA counsellors can also help in terms of exploring any safety strategies needed if the perpetrator of the sexual harm is a staff member or student at UniSA.
It doesn’t matter if the incident occurred recently or a long time ago, or if it happened on-campus or off-campus – no matter what, support is available. You can visit our website for a full list of support services (unisa.edu.au/sash), but here’s a list of some key ones:
- UniSA has free and confidential professional counselling for students Monday-Friday 9am-5pm. You can book an appointment online or by phone. We also have an out-of-hours crisis line outside of those hours: 1300 107 441.
- 1800RESPECT, the national sexual assault, family and domestic counselling service, available 24 hours, 7 days a week on 1800 737 732 or 1800respect.org.au
- QLife, an anonymous and free peer support and referral service for the LGBTI community, on 1800 184 527 or qlife.org.au.
- Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
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