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Nonprofit view: How to respond when someone tells you they were sexually assaulted?

Grace Burnett, a graduate intern at McDaniel College, looks over completed sexual assault survivor kits to be donated to Rape Crisis Intervention Services as part of an Alternative Break service project at McDaniel College in Westminster Thursday, March 17, 2016.
Grace Burnett, a graduate intern at McDaniel College, looks over completed sexual assault survivor kits to be donated to Rape Crisis Intervention Services as part of an Alternative Break service project at McDaniel College in Westminster Thursday, March 17, 2016. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

(Content warning: This column contains a brief discussion of sexual violence and its aftermath.)

Unless sexual violence has already affected your life, it can be difficult to imagine a friend or loved one coming to you with a story of sexual assault, harassment, or other abuse. Would you know how to respond?

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Some victim-survivors are able to begin sharing right away, but it is common for them to take months or even years to feel ready to tell their story. The responses they receive can have a strong impact on how and when they are able to move forward and begin healing. A negative or hurtful response can delay that person reaching out for further support by years.

It is most important to listen without judgment and accept their story as they have told it. “I believe you” and “this was not your fault” are simple, yet powerful words that let your friend or loved one know that you are a safe person to lean on. Thank them for trusting you with their story, and, if you feel ready to do so, let them know that you want to support them in whatever way they choose to move forward. This is not the time to ask for more details than they have offered or to question their actions or decisions, even if they don’t make sense to you.

If you are not able to offer further support for any reason, instead offer to connect them with another trusted person or agency like Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County (RCIS).

While you are speaking with your friend or loved one, try to stay calm. You might be feeling sadness, anger or a range of other emotions, but it is important that the victim-survivor you are talking with be able to focus on processing their own feelings, not yours. That being said, please take the time to care for yourself later. Focus on continuing to eat regular meals, getting enough sleep and taking the time to exercise. Meditation, yoga or spending a few minutes focusing on slow, mindful breathing might be helpful. Sometimes something as simple as taking a long shower or bath and using a favorite soap or lotion can be soothing and re-grounding. Talking to a therapist or counselor is helpful to many as well, and is available free through RCIS.

RCIS offers free and confidential services to victim-survivors of sexual violence, including a 24-hour hotline, walk-in crisis intervention, individual or group therapy, and hospital or court accompaniments. It is less well known that we also provide these services to the friends and loved ones who are doing the hard work of walking alongside those victim-survivors.

Sexual violence often results in trauma, which can have intense and wide-ranging effects on mental, physical and emotional wellness. It can be very difficult to support a friend or a loved one who is healing from trauma, and we want you to know that you are not alone. Please reach out to our 24-hour hotline at 410-857-7322 any time.

Johanna Veader is outreach specialist for Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County.

Each Monday, the Carroll County Times publishes a column from a local nonprofit, allowing them to share information about their organization and the issues facing it. To be considered, email cctnews@carrollcountytimes.com with the subject line “Nonprofit View.”

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