Tag Archives: trauma

Moving through trauma

By Jessica Smith November 7, 2018

I am a wounded healer. I remember a professor in graduate school telling our class that most counselors are wounded healers. As human beings, we gravitate toward what we know. As counselors, many of us are attracted to this work because of our difficult life experiences. These events in our lives often include trauma.

Trauma is woven into the tapestry of my life. My hope in sharing my story is to continue the discussion around personal and vicarious trauma for counselors to remind others that they are not alone. I also wish to provide tools and strategies to assist counselors and their clients in moving through and releasing the trauma that is stored in their bodies and hearts.

My story

At age 17, I was sexually assaulted at a New Year’s Eve party. My life and my perception of the world instantly altered in that moment. Before the assault, I was the captain of my varsity field hockey team and was taking Advanced Placement courses to pursue my dream of going to an Ivy League school. My primary focus at the time was finding a date to the senior prom, but after that night, I lost all direction and shut down.

From that point on, I went to school and then went straight home each afternoon. I started avoiding my family and friends because I feared the questions they would ask and the suffering my responses would reveal. I slept a lot and found myself drifting off in the majority of my classes. Sleep was one of the few activities that allowed me to escape my thoughts and emotions, so I found refuge in the silence as often as possible. I isolated myself by spending most of my time alone in my bedroom, which was one of the only places where I felt physically and emotionally safe.

When sleep wasn’t enough, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Substance use issues run in my family, so drinking was modeled for me at a young age as a way to release and relax. When I was crumbling on the inside, drinking allowed me to appear stronger on the outside. In social situations, drinking helped replace my anxiety and insecurity with confidence and courage. I was aware that drinking offered only a short-term fix, but at the time, it was the only way I knew to cope with my discomfort and pain.

I managed to finish my senior year of high school and go off to college. I thought I would reinvent myself in college and leave behind my past experiences, but the drinking and my desire to numb myself followed me to this next stage of life. I would stay up late drinking with friends and subsequently miss most of my morning classes, even though attendance counted for a large portion of the grade.

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was barely keeping my head above water. My grades suffered, and I ended my first semester of college with a C average. School had always been a grounding force in my life when everything else felt like it was floating away, so I knew that something had to change.

As a high school athlete, I had used sports and exercise to move through and release difficult emotions, so I once again began exercising and taking longer walks on an almost daily basis. Still, I felt that something was missing. My college was located in a rural town in southwest Virginia, but I managed to find a yoga studio to try out the practice, telling myself that it would serve as a beneficial cross-training exercise to my running. The prospect of cross-training was what brought me to my mat, but it was not what kept me there.

I still remember my first class. It was a hot yoga series with a set sequence of 26 standing and seated poses in a room heated to 92 degrees. I recall the teacher saying that if we needed to take breaks during the class, we could sit on our mats in Hero pose. Hero pose (see photos in Counseling Today‘s print magazine) is a kneeling pose, which also makes it a vulnerable posture. Although it is a grounding and surrendering pose, it is also a strengthening and activating pose.

About halfway through that first class, I felt dizzy and nauseated from the heat and the movements. I had believed I was in good shape at the time, but yoga challenged both my mind and my body in ways that I wasn’t accustomed to. My pride told me to continue to stand and attempt the series of poses, but my heart told me to sit down and take a break. I decided to listen to my heart instead of my mind for one of the first times since my childhood. I knelt down in Hero pose, stared at myself in the mirror and began to cry. I had been avoiding the metaphorical mirrors in my life for so long after the assault that I did not recognize the person looking back at me.

In that moment, I allowed myself to feel the pain I had been avoiding for the past year. I felt safe and comforted on my mat in that space. The class continued to go on around me while I closed my eyes and breathed in the pose. “I’m here for you,” I said silently to myself. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re safe now.”

Initially, I attended yoga once a week, but that eventually turned into two and three times a week. Each time I stepped on my mat, I felt a little piece of myself coming back and healing where it had been broken apart. Gradually, my heart also began to open again. I was able to begin getting out of my head and into my heart, which had been a struggle for me much of my life. At first, I gravitated toward yoga for the physical practice, but what kept me coming back was the spiritual and heart connection that it continually fostered.

Breathing in

In college, I began learning and experimenting with pranayama, or breathwork, practices in yoga to try to manage my overwhelming emotions with something other than alcohol. My connection to my mind was powerful and familiar, but my connection to my body and breath felt feeble and foreign.

I knew it would take time to nurture this new relationship with my breath. I kept going to yoga even when I wanted to give up and choose the quick fix. I continued to show up to experience the sporadic moments of quiet I achieved each time in my practice. Even if that happened for only 10 seconds at a time, those 10 seconds were more of a reprieve from my thoughts than I had experienced at any other point in my life.

I soon discovered that feelings influence breath and breath influences feelings. I used breathwork to move through a variety of emotions in college, including stress, anxiety, frustration and exhaustion. Prana is translated as “life force,” and yama is translated as “control,” so pranayama means to control the life force within. When I felt like so many things were out of control in my life, it was empowering to have one area in which I could temporarily regain my sense of power and control. With each breath I took in yoga, I felt like I was coming back to life again.

My breathwork practice started with basic diaphragmatic breathing, in which you place one hand over your heart and one hand over your stomach while breathing deeply into the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing is still a touchstone in my practice when I am struggling to connect with my breath.

Early on, I also learned kapalabhati, or “breath of fire,” in which you place one or both hands on your stomach and use forced exhalations through your nose to move your stomach and increase fire or energy in your body. Through practice, I discovered I could use breath to activate or energize myself (kapalabhati), and I could also use breath to deactivate and calm myself (diaphragmatic breathing).

Sitting down

My interest in breathwork eventually evolved into a meditation practice. I attended a mindfulness-based stress reduction intensive in graduate school to strengthen my meditation practice. I remember learning about walking meditation and practicing this form of grounding for an hour outside in nature. I had moved from 10 seconds of stillness in my mind to minutes of stillness during this walking practice.

I began to use walking meditation while moving around campus during my internship. I noticed that I felt more present, relaxed and grounded in sessions with students. When I was in a rush and forgot about my meditation practice, I felt irritable, worried and distracted in meetings.

My meditation practice has changed over time, but I always come back to walking meditation and the basic breathing techniques I learned in college and graduate school. I typically meditate for at least 20 minutes each day during the evening. This allows me to quiet my mind before bed and to release anything I am holding on to from the day that is no longer serving me.

Recently, I started beginning my meditation practice with a mantra statement. Mantra is translated as a “mind tool.” A mantra I use often in my practice is “Ham-sah,” which is Sanskrit for “I am that.” I am divine. I am light. I am love. I breathe in “ham” and breathe out “sah.” I use a mala, a string of 108 beads, to recite the mantra. The mind is like a puppy; the mantra serves as a toy for the puppy to play with and explore while settling into your meditation practice.

I also use mudras, which I call yoga for the hands. We have thousands of nerve endings in our fingers that are linked to various organs and other parts of our bodies. When we place our hands in specific positions, this activates certain sensations in the mind and body.

One of my favorite mudras to teach to clients and students is Auspicious mudra, in which you place one hand over your heart and then the other hand, while intentionally sending your breath to the space around and through your heart. I use this mudra to nurture and show compassion to my heart and body.

Standing up

After the assault, I blamed my body for what had happened, and I wanted to punish it. Because of this, I disconnected from my body through alcohol and other means. Yoga helped me come back to my body and feel safe in my body again. It allowed me to reclaim my relationship with my body that I had severed a connection with out of fear and shame. The poses and postures reduced the negative thoughts I carried about my body and encouraged me to open up to the beauty and wonder it had to show me.

One definition of yoga is a practice to “calm the thought waves.” Yoga asks us to move out of our heads and gently into our bodies. Yoga encourages us to push ourselves to our edges and sit with the sensations but to back off when we experience pain. Yoga reminds us that we can be uncomfortable in a moment but that, eventually, the discomfort will pass. Yoga connects us to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. Yoga invites us to play, explore and discover the magic of our minds, bodies and souls.

As with my breathwork and meditation practices, my yoga practice has evolved over time. My movement usually reflects what is going on with me internally. When I need calm and peace in my life, I turn to restorative or yin postures, which are cooling and relaxing. When I need strength and power in my life, I seek out vinyasa or hatha poses, which are heating and energizing. 

One pose that I return to each day in my practice, both personally and professionally, is Tree pose. Tree pose is a balancing pose. Balancing poses are particularly helpful in bringing ourselves into the present moment rather than focusing on the past or the future. It is difficult to stand tall and securely in a balancing posture when our minds are wandering or drifting out of the present moment. To not fall in a balance pose, we have to be fully in the here and now.

To begin, stand in Tadasana, or Mountain pose, with your shoulders stacked over your hips, knees and ankles. Inhale to lengthen up through the spine and the crown of the head, and exhale to ground and release into the feet. Feet are hips-width distance apart and parallel. Arms can gently rest by the sides with the palms facing up.

With an inhale, bring the right foot to rest on the left ankle or calf like a kickstand. Exhale to root into the left foot and then move the gaze to a wall or object 3 to 6 feet in front of the eyes. Inhale and bring the hands to heart center in Anjali mudra, or Prayer pose. Exhale to release the shoulders down the back. Inhale to lengthen in the pose, and exhale to settle in the pose. Remain in Tree pose for five additional breaths, then switch sides and repeat. 

Flowing through

I am a survivor. At one point in my life, I was only surviving, just trying to get through each minute and hour of the day. Now I can confidently say that I am truly thriving.

We deserve to thrive rather than just merely survive in our lives. Yoga, breathwork and meditation have helped me to survive and also thrive in my life. The yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, reads, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” When I lost my way, breath and movement led me back home to my true self.

 

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Jessica Smith is a licensed professional counselor, licensed addiction counselor, yoga teacher and owner of Radiance Counseling in Denver. She believes self-care is an act of self-love, and she is passionate about spreading this message to her fellow healers and clients. She is currently writing a collaborative memoir with a former client in the justice system and a memoir on healing from burnout. Contact her at jsmith@radiancecounseling.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Infusing hope amid despair

By Laurie Meyers September 24, 2018

In 2015, two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that made a shocking claim: After decreasing for decades, the mortality rate for white non-Latinx middle-aged Americans was actually increasing. They ascribed this reversal of fortune in part to what they dubbed “deaths of despair” caused by an increase in alcohol abuse, opioid use and suicide. Their findings grabbed headlines and fueled furious debate in the public health and other research communities, particularly when they published a follow-up report in 2017 in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Some researchers questioned the authors’ interpretation of mortality data. Other experts argued that the factors contributing to the rise in suicide rates and in opioid and alcohol abuse were too complex to be attributed to “despair.”

However, despite their narrow focus on a particular demographic slice, Case and Deaton were perhaps tapping into a greater sense of instability among the American populace. Since 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted an annual nationwide survey — Stress in America — gauging both the overall level and leading sources of stress in the United States. The 2017 report revealed that two-thirds of the 3,440 adult Americans surveyed that August were significantly stressed about the future of the country. More than half of those surveyed — a group that spanned generations — said they considered the current time to be the lowest point in U.S. history that they could remember. Nearly 6 in 10 adults reported that the current climate of social divisiveness was a serious source of personal stress. Other significant sources of worry included money, work, health care, the economy, trust (or lack thereof) in government, hate crimes, conflicts with other countries, terrorist attacks, unemployment/low wages and climate change/environmental issues.

Although Americans may not be drowning in despair, research such as APA’s report indicates that many people are feeling more insecure than ever. That sense of walking a tightrope without a safety net can cause significant psychological distress, which can in turn lead to health problems and mental illness. Many experts say the burden of general societal unease is often magnified for disenfranchised groups such as communities of color or those of low socioeconomic status. And trauma — whether caused by being a member of a disenfranchised group or by a history of abuse or violence — takes an even more significant toll on health and well-being. Any or all of these issues may be related to the rise in opioid addiction and suicide across the U.S.

A poverty of health and well-being

To some degree, most people in the so-called 98 percent — those not in the top 1-2 percent of individuals possessing the majority of the nation’s wealth — worry about money: affording a mortgage, sending the kids to college, saving for retirement. The Great Recession may be over, but recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF) indicates that the economy hasn’t fully recovered. In its Aug. 13 economic letter, the FRBSF states, “A decade after the last financial crisis and recession, the U.S. economy remains significantly smaller than it should be based on its pre-crisis growth trend.”

The letter goes on to speculate that this is due to substantial losses in the economy’s productive capacity post-crisis. These losses were so significant, FRBSF researchers assert, that they could result in a lifetime income loss of $70,000 for each American.

This is staggering news for most Americans, but for those who live in poverty — 40.6 million Americans according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau study — such an amount is catastrophic. The poverty threshold is broadly defined as any single individual younger than 65 earning less than $12,316 annually and any single individual 65 or older living on less than $11,354 annually. The poverty threshold for two people under the age of 65 living together is $15,934, and the threshold for two people over the age of 65 living together is $14,326. For a family of three — one child and two adults — the poverty threshold is $19,055. For a family of three with one adult and two children, the threshold is $19,073.

For people who have never been impoverished, it can be difficult to comprehend all the ways in which poverty can affect health and well-being. Forget vacations, higher education and saving for retirement. People living in poverty are often unable to access basic needs such as safe shelter, food and, in some cases, even running water, says Chelsey Zoldan, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) practicing in Youngstown, Ohio. She has also counseled clients in the rural, impoverished Appalachian region of Ohio.

“I’ve worked with many clients over the years who have had their utilities turned off and lived in homes without water, heat or electricity,” says Zoldan, an American Counseling Association member. Missing that foundation at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these clients struggle to stabilize their mental health symptoms, she explains.

People living in poverty often have to reside in low socioeconomic status areas with higher levels of violence and crime. Zoldan says many of her clients have lived in supportive housing and regularly heard gunshots in their neighborhoods at night. Although some clients seemed to get used to it, others — particularly those with trauma histories — had trouble feeling safe in their own homes.

Those who live in poverty also often lack access to quality health care. “Not only are individuals limited in terms of health care coverage, but they may also struggle to obtain transportation to get to health-related appointments,” Zoldan says. “In my area, there was such a high demand for medical transportation to appointments that they stopped providing door-to-door transportation and only provided bus passes.”

Instead of a 15-minute ride to appointments, Zoldan’s clients now had to navigate public transportation, which could take up to two hours each way with a change of buses. Riding the bus also poses another significant challenge — having to walk numerous blocks to the stop, which during winter in northeast Ohio means navigating “tons of snow” and double-digit subzero windchills, Zoldan says. Even in more clement weather, many of Zoldan’s clients were unable to devote two to four hours a day to traveling to health-related appointments, so they stopped receiving services.

Self-care can also prove challenging for those living in poverty, and it doesn’t include vacations or nights out. Zoldan works with individual clients to identify free activities that they enjoy and can engage in at least weekly, such as taking a bath, attending a Bible study, going for a walk in the park, meditating, and reading books or magazines at the library. Unfortunately, some of these activities may not be available to all clients, either because they live in rural areas with few resources or because they are unable to arrange child care, Zoldan points out.

Zoldan advises counselors working with this client population to get outside the walls of their offices. It is critical that counselors make community connections, she says, so that they can help clients access resources such as shelters, housing authorities, food banks, clothing providers, programs that offer financial assistance for utilities, medical transportation and vocational services.

“In connecting our clients with these resources, we can work to build a safety net for our clients and create some more stability in their lives so that they can thrive,” she says.

The legacy of racism

Racism happens on both a micro and macro level, says Cirecie West-Olatunji, a past president of ACA. Microaggressions are more nuanced and under the radar and involve everyday interactions with individuals who exert privilege. It might be the shop clerk who ignores an African American person in favor of a white shopper or a student of color who is consistently not called on, despite raising her hand. Macroaggressions are overt and meant to intimidate members of a group, such as neo-Nazis marching in the nation’s capital and people openly using racial slurs. Together, the macro- and microaggressions create pervasive, chronic stress that is handed down through intergenerational trauma, explains West-Olatunji, an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have been studying a phenomenon they first witnessed in some of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Despite not having experienced the Holocaust themselves, and instead having grown up in a middle-class environment in the U.S., these individuals displayed survivor-like trauma symptoms. The findings were startling but have proved not to be unique. After 9/11, researchers studied children who had not been born at the time that their parents served as first responders at one of the attack sites. Like the grandchildren of the Holocaust survivors, these children of 9/11 trauma survivors displayed corresponding symptoms despite not experiencing the trauma themselves, West-Olatunji says.

Chronic, pervasive stress and trauma can be seen in changes at the DNA level, she says. Some researchers believe that these DNA changes play a part in handing down the trauma from generation to generation.

For African Americans, the trauma is also handed down on a systemic level, West-Olatunji says. “It is evident in social structures, education, lack of power and aggressive acts that threaten the psyche of individuals who are culturally marginalized,” she says. Slavery still casts a long shadow, its legacy evident in the school-to-prison pipeline, the number of African American children who are in low-resource schools, their overrepresentation in special education and the disproportionate diagnosis of behavioral disorders. “Children are being tossed out of the American dream by a lack of resources,” she says.

The effects of openly expressed racism are also manifesting in society, West-Olatunji says. “We’re anxious and irritable and feeling less hopeful about the world,” she says. These “symptoms” match those displayed by culturally marginalized groups.

Courtland Lee, also a past president of ACA, believes the effects of racism extend beyond the targeted group. In fact, he contends that racism can be considered a mental illness.

Lee began thinking of the concept of racism as mental illness after reading Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, a book by Ibram X. Kendi that examines the intellectual roots of racism. Although many people may consider racism the purview of poor, white, rural Southerners, it has historically been handed down from the best and brightest minds in science, medicine, philosophy, religion and psychology, Lee explains. Racism is woven into our intellectual and social fiber and is used to manipulate people through fear of the other, he continues.

Lee says that targets of racist behavior are ground down by the constant micro- and macroaggressions, leading to “cultural dysthymia,” or collective low-grade depression. This collective depression is manifestly not conducive to mental health, and he argues that its effects aren’t felt solely by those who are targets of racism.

Lee believes that the fear and hatred of those who perpetrate racist acts is also mentally traumatizing — not just to those who are targeted but to the perpetrators themselves — and that the trauma must be addressed to treat the mental illness of racism. Counselors can do this on a systemic level through advocacy and on an individual level by helping people who are racist see that the agitation, irritability, hostility and hypervigilance they experience is caused by their beliefs. The challenge is getting perpetrators of racism to see that the defensiveness and fear inherent in racist thought can also bring those fears to life, Lee says.

For instance, one commonly cited reason to block immigration from Mexico is that these immigrants are stealing American jobs and damaging the economy. However, a lack of visas and fear of anti-immigrant violence have kept Mexican seasonal workers away from sectors such as the Maryland crab industry. In their absence, merchants who sell crab meat to restaurants and stores cannot recruit enough employees to clean and process their haul, even at high wages. That means the crabs cannot be sold, which is a major economic blow to the industry.

As a country, the United States needs to discuss racial issues, Lee says. Counselors, who are trained to encourage conversation, can and should facilitate these dialogues in their communities, through churches or community centers, he suggests. “We really do live in a sick society,” Lee says. “We can help people get well, but the only way to get well is to cure the society.”

As individuals, counselors can also play an important role in validating the experiences of people of color and speaking out when they witness micro- or macroaggressions, West-Olatunji says. She also urges counselors to explore non-Eurocentric methods, such as using the tradition of storytelling in the Latinx community or testifying in the African American community. Non-Western traditions can be applied effectively across cultures, making them a useful addition to any counselor’s toolbox, West-Olatunji says. 

Touched by trauma

“Life is a traumatizing experience,” says Cynthia Miller, an LPC in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose practice specializes in trauma. “It’s full of challenges, unexpected and uncontrollable events, and losses. I don’t think any of us gets through it unscathed.”

Miller, an ACA member, says trauma is on a spectrum that begins with ordinary stress and gradually progresses to completely overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. Eventually, it can even put them at risk of death.

A seminal study that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente began in 1995 established a link between adult health problems and adverse childhood experiences such as emotional and physical neglect, sexual and physical abuse, exposure to violence in the household, and household members who had substance abuse problems or had been in prison.

These experiences fall on the more extreme end of the spectrum — often referred to as “big T” traumas. However, Miller cautions against discounting the “little t’s” as sources of distress. Where a trauma falls on the spectrum is individual and variable. “Some people might experience the loss of a job as stressful but wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed by it,” she explains. “Others might experience it as very overwhelming and become immobilized. So one person’s stressful event is another person’s traumatic event, and one person’s traumatic event is another person’s ordinary stressful event.”

Miller notes that mental health professionals recognize events such as the loss of a job, economic insecurity, divorce and family problems as sources of stress but often don’t accord them the same level of treatment as “real” mental illness. “It’s really a false distinction,” she says.

Someone who has lost a job or is going through a divorce is experiencing significant stress and is likely flooded with cortisol in the same way that a person who has experienced violence is, Miller asserts. “It’s really the chronic stress from either a ‘little t’ trauma or a ‘big T’ trauma that eats away at us and sets us up for depression, anxiety, anger problems, health problems and substance use,” she explains.

“There are a lot of things going on in society that could be experienced as traumatic,” Miller continues. “Globalization and automation are rapidly changing communities and workplaces, eliminating some industries and leaving workers scrambling for jobs that pay less and offer less job security. Economic inequality is growing, and housing costs keep rising. People feel increasingly insecure and like their futures are being threatened. That’s leading some people to feel helpless or hopeless. Others are angry and lashing out.”

Trauma-informed counseling is critical to recovery from both “big” and “little” traumas, Miller says, as well as for building ongoing resilience.

“I think that the biggest thing that trauma-informed counselors bring to the treatment process that less-informed counselors may not is an alternative explanation for behaviors that are often seen as purely manipulative, obstinate, oppositional, attention seeking or antisocial,” Miller says. “Trauma-informed counselors may be more likely to view a client’s reactions and behaviors as attempts to cope or protect themselves rather than chalking them up to resistance, treatment noncompliance or poor motivation. They also bring an awareness of the importance of creating a sense of safety and control for a client, and they work to create environments in which clients have as much autonomy and input into their treatment as possible.”

Miller also decries the traditional “split” between substance abuse and mental health treatment. Although she doesn’t believe that all substance abuse is caused by mental illness or trauma, she says these are often underlying factors that go untreated, which puts clients at risk of relapse.

Regardless of the cause, substance abuse is an illness that needs to be treated, she asserts. “For far too long, substance abuse has been treated as a problem of weak moral character rather than an effort to soothe emotional pain that someone doesn’t feel able to cope with,” she observes.

Miller also points to the contrasting public reactions to the crack and opioid epidemics. Whereas the crack crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s was considered a criminal problem, the current opioid epidemic is recognized as a public health problem, she notes. Miller ascribes this difference not only to the traditional judgment of substance abuse as a moral failing but also to the reality that crack was seen largely as affecting African Americans, while opioids are generally viewed as affecting white Americans. (Some researchers and commentators have also begun noting that the growing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths among African Americans has largely been left out of the national narrative.)

Seeking solace

Just as crack enveloped areas that were economically devastated — at the time, predominantly African American urban neighborhoods — opioids are most common in rural areas that can no longer depend on the industries that once sustained them. West Virginia is one of the epicenters of the opioid crisis, and Carol Smith, an ACA member and past president of the West Virginia Counseling Association, believes that isolation and the lack of opportunity in much of the state are helping to fuel opioid abuse.

A frequently spun narrative of the crisis is that of unsuspecting people who get addicted after being prescribed opioids for pain after injury or surgery, but those cases make up a small percentage of those who are addicted to opioids, according to Smith. Indeed, people have been using opioids for pain relief for decades without becoming addicted on a large scale, notes Smith, a counseling professor and coordinator of the violence, loss and trauma certificate of studies at Marshall University. The people who do get addicted after being prescribed opioids usually already have substance abuse problems, she says.

However they first encounter opioids, the people most at risk for addiction are those who lack good coping skills and social support, Smith says. They typically also have a certain degree of existential despair, which is only reinforced by the long-term abuse of opioids.

Smith explains that West Virginia is particularly vulnerable to this sense of despair because its topography of mountains and waterways makes building roads and installing cables prohibitively expensive. This isolates the state not just physically but virtually because of the lack of high-speed internet access, she says. This lack of connectivity discourages new economic development, further reinforcing the cycle of poverty. As a result, many of the state’s inhabitants don’t feel that they have a lot to lose or much to strive for, Smith says, leaving them vulnerable to anything that might make the day go by faster or easier.

With its emphasis on treating the whole person, counseling is integral to the effort to stem the tide of addiction, Smith says. Counselors can help clients fight despair by guiding them to regain a sense of purpose through goal setting and identifying reasons for living. In addition, counselors can aid clients in dispelling their sense of isolation by teaching them relationship skills and helping them build support networks. Smith also stresses the importance of combining counseling with medication-assisted treatment, which addresses the physiological aspects of addiction.

Dying of despair?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 45,000 Americans 10 years and older died by suicide in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available. In the June CDC Vital Signs report, the agency said that from 1999-2016, the suicide rate rose by more than 30 percent in 25 states. While acknowledging that those suicide statistics are the most accurate figures available, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has stated that it believes actual rates are much higher.

Case and Deaton’s study connected the rise in the suicide rate in part to despair caused by a dearth of employment and lack of opportunity, but some experts say that causation is far from clear.

“It is hard to pinpoint a specific cause,” says ACA member Darcy Granello, a professor and director of the Ohio State University suicide prevention program. “Frankly, the numbers are increasing at such an alarming rate and across so many different demographic groups that we have to be careful not to paint broad brushstrokes and assume that specific factors apply to all of these different groups.”

Granello, whose research focuses on suicide prevention, does believe that Americans are feeling more isolated and disconnected, however. “That pervasive sense of loneliness is especially dangerous for those who already struggle with depression,” she says. “We know that social connectedness, feeling supported and having a sense of belonging all are protective factors that help minimize the risk for suicide. When those are taken away, suicide risk increases.”

Granello says myriad factors may be contributing to the rise in suicide, but recent research has caused experts to question their understanding of suicide. For example, historically, 90 percent of those who kill themselves have some kind of mental illness — often undiagnosed or untreated. However, more and more people who die by suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death, Granello says.

“This is challenging to everyone in the field, and it causes us to rethink much of what we know,” she says. “It means that suicide is more and more the result of people who simply do not have the resources to cope with life’s problems, whether this inability to cope is because they are living with a mental illness or simply because they are overwhelmed by life and have never developed healthy coping strategies.”

Granello urges counselors to focus on helping clients develop those strategies. Those at risk for suicide are often ill-equipped to face life’s challenges, make long-term plans and envision a future, she says. For many people, the key to survival is getting through the crisis period — that window when they are most tempted to end their lives, she continues.

Counselors can teach clients to move out of their isolation, reach out to others and develop healthy coping strategies, Granello says. But to do that, counselors need to be adequately trained in suicide prevention, assessment and intervention — something that Granello doesn’t think is happening often enough. She stresses the need to push for comprehensive, empirically supported suicide prevention training in counselor education programs and through continuing education.

“We have to do this,” Granello says. “We are, quite literally, fighting for our lives.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • A Contemporary Approach to Substance Use Disorders, second edition, by Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
  • Counseling for Social Justice, third edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fifth edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Suicide Assessment and Prevention, DVD, presented by John S. Westefeld

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources)

  • Trauma and Disaster
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Substance Use Disorders and Addiction

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “Counseling African-American Males: Post Ferguson” presented by Rufus Tony Spann (ACA285)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/pages/events)

  • “Traumatic Stress and Marginalized Groups” with Cirecie A. West-Olatunji (CPA24341)
  • “Dissociation and Trauma Spectrum” with Mike Dubi (CPA24333)
  • “ABCs of Trauma” with A. Stephen Lenz (CPA24329)

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: One quiet hour

By Gregory K. Moffatt

Seven-year-old “Adam” (not his real name) concentrates on the project in front of him. He is coloring on a piece of paper on the floor in my therapy room, and I am sitting close beside him. Crayons litter the floor, and I can see him thinking carefully as he selects each color. He leans back against my arm like a baby bird snuggling beneath its mother’s wing. This simple behavior says, “I trust you,” and it is a very good sign.

As he bends forward to color, he exposes his neck beneath the curls of his hair. I can see the fading remnants of bruises in the shape of fingers. Similar bruises are visible on the exposed skin of his arms. I know there are still more bruises in places I can’t see. I also know that he would never lean back against his stepfather like he is doing with me. It wouldn’t be safe for him. The touches he has received at home have not been gentle ones.

Adam’s world is very small. He lives in a small trailer and attends a small elementary school. He doesn’t play sports, take piano lessons or engage in any other activities outside of his home. He has never had a party or been to a sleepover at a friend’s house. Chances are good that he never will.

Adam’s world is small, but it is also very crowded. Siblings, stepsiblings, mother, father, stepparents, teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, lawyers, judges — these are the people who inhabit Adam’s world.

Adam looks forward to coming to see me each week. When his world and mine overlap, it is just the two of us. We play in the sandbox, draw pictures or play with puppets. I learn a lot about his world from the way he plays, his choices of toys and the emotion he puts into the activities of our sessions together. Sometimes he talks of yelling and hitting. Other times he tells stories of policemen and social services workers. Still other times, he just plays quietly.

There is little I can do to make Adam’s home life easier. The law has done little to protect him and, as well-intentioned as they have been, social agencies have in many ways made his life harder. He is a powerless child at the mercy of a world of adults who like to think they care. But in reality, they care more about their own interests and personal agendas than they do about children like Adam.

To most of the people in his life, Adam is just the troubled kid whom nobody would miss if he disappeared. He is a child who makes teaching harder. He is the disruptive child whom parents don’t want their kids playing with. They can’t understand him, and many of them don’t even try. Even his caseworker is too busy and too jaded to connect emotionally with Adam. I can only help him develop skills to cope in his crowded and noisy world. It breaks my heart, but I’ve seen it many times.

In some ways, Adam is an enigma to me. He giggles as he tells me about something funny his sister did at home. How does he find happiness in this life he lives?

It always surprises me how the things of the world that otherwise would be important to me seem to fade in their significance when I am working with a child such as Adam. No matter what is happening in my life, when I close my office door and I have this quiet hour with a client, I don’t think about politics, war, terrorism, money or even my family. I concentrate fully on Adam. I am his for one hour. He knows he is safe with me and that I will always honor and respect him, his thoughts and his dreams. He knows I will not betray his secrets or laugh at his fears.

When our time is up, Adam rises to leave. He doesn’t look back as he exits my office. One way he copes is by living from moment to moment, investing only in that moment — no future and no past.

People often wonder how I work with children such as Adam. “How can you sleep at night?” they ask, shaking their heads.

I can sleep because I know that even if it is only for one hour, I can make a child’s world a little more tolerable. I know I am helping create a better world for children like Adam because for one hour, they can know they are safe and secure and that I really do care about them. I have no hidden agenda.

I can sleep because working with children like Adam helps me to put life in perspective. It makes me a better father and a better human being. This is my calling, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is why I became a counselor.

 

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Talking about #MeToo

By Laurie Meyers August 31, 2018

In 2006, activist Tarana Burke founded the “me too” movement — a grassroots campaign to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities. Over time, the movement with a simple message — you are not alone — built a community of survivors from all walks of life.

In fall 2017, in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment by film producer and entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, “me too” went viral — and global — with a single hashtag. Social media feeds were suddenly flooded with #MeToo, sometimes accompanied by personal stories or alternately issued as a statement in itself.

In the year that has followed this mass call for awareness, stories of sexual harassment and assault have continued to come to light. The discussions about how to achieve safety and equality show no signs of flagging. Some of these conversations are happening in counseling practices as counselors help clients process their own #MeToo stories.

For licensed professional counselor (LPC) Sarah Kate Valatka, a private practitioner in Blacksburg, Virginia, the most striking element of #MeToo has been the sense of community — albeit an unchosen one — the movement has created for survivors. That feeling of community not only helps clients feel less isolated but also engenders hope as they see other survivors navigating their own trauma, says Valatka, an American Counseling Association member whose practice specialties include addressing gender-based violence.

Other counselors say the movement is encouraging women who previously chose to remain silent about their experiences to seek help. “I absolutely believe this has empowered more women to come forward,” says Brooke Bagley, an LPC at the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee in Knoxville. “I have heard the narrative repeatedly — that many have been scared, isolated or unsure of the legitimacy of their own traumas, and this movement has given these individuals a voice.”

Indeed, Bagley says although the practice where she works has not seen a substantial increase in new clients, a number of people who had not previously thought of themselves as survivors have come in looking for help to process their experiences.

Charity Hagains, a licensed professional counselor supervisor who specializes in sexual trauma, says she and other counselors at the Noyau Wellness Center in Dallas have seen many new clients seeking help not for assault but for experiences they are just now realizing had crossed the line into sexual harassment. Hagains says she has commonly heard statements from clients such as, “It never occurred to me that this [behavior] wasn’t OK. Every boss I have ever had commented on my body.”

Hagains says the #MeToo movement has also caused many adult women to reconsider their younger experiences. Typical incidents these women have shared in session with Hagains include being pressured to show their bodies in a chatroom when they were preteens or being coerced into having sex as teenagers. At the time, they didn’t consider it coercion because they thought they were old enough to consent or had been drinking and thus excused the other person’s actions.

“It always made me feel awful,” clients have told Hagains. “I was ashamed, but I didn’t realize that it was something that other people would see as not my fault.”

Conversations such as these — both inside and outside of counselors’ offices — are long overdue, asserts Laura Morse, an LPC who specializes in relationship and sexual issues, including assault and trauma. Telling these stories has served to highlight how often sexual assault occurs, but clients are grappling with what comes next, she says.

“So much of the counseling journey with sexual assault survivors is figuring out the ‘and’ after identifying with #MeToo,” says Morse, a private practitioner in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Empowering individuals after assault to write their narrative, decide their legal choices and how or if they want to share their story, that’s the part of the conversation that #MeToo leaves us grappling with as a community.”

Moving on from #MeToo

The journey to healing from sexual trauma often begins with defining what has happened to the client, Bagley says. Using psychoeducation, she talks to clients about what constitutes sexual assault or harassment. She also explains common reactions and responses to sexual trauma. Once clients have a better understanding of what they have experienced, Bagley says she can delve into how their trauma is manifesting and work toward the management of symptoms.

Shame and guilt often accompany sexual assault and can be difficult to move past, says Trish McCoy Kessler, an LPC and owner of Empower Counseling, a practice in Lynchburg, Virginia, that focuses on the needs of women and girls. She starts by normalizing what clients are feeling and emphasizing that the sexual violence or harassment they have experienced is not their fault.

Kessler, a member of ACA, uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients note when they experience a negative emotion and identify the thoughts that are evoking that feeling. She then challenges those thoughts, asking clients to consider whether any evidence exists to support their negative self-talk. Simply instilling hope in clients that their feelings of shame and guilt will lessen over time can help reduce their anxiety and stress, Kessler adds.

Kessler also focuses on coping skills with clients, she says, because many people who have experienced trauma use maladaptive coping skills such as substance abuse and emotional eating. Kessler teaches clients to instead use positive skills such as meditation, reaching out to friends (to avoid isolation), listening to music and writing or journaling. She has found it especially helpful to suggest that clients (and particularly teen clients) keep a list of effective coping skills on their phones to refer to when they are feeling overwhelmed. Kessler also emphasizes the importance of self-care, including getting adequate sleep, getting the proper nutrition and engaging in regular exercise.

Hagains notes that many of her clients lack compassion for themselves. She encourages them to identify as survivors rather than victims and attempts to teach self-compassion by holding a mirror up to the compassion that her clients show to others. For example, Hagains asks clients to consider what they would say to a friend going through the same experiences. “It’s usually not something like, ‘You’re awful,’” she notes wryly. “If you would give your friend a hug, give yourself a hug,” she urges.

Hagains also asks clients to identify the shame statements that they tell themselves. Then she helps them create positive, affirming messages to replace the negative self-talk.

Over time, Bagley has created a five-phase model that she uses for clients who have experienced sexual trauma. In the first phase, she assesses and identifies the client’s level of trauma through a symptom-based checklist. She then explores the emotional, cognitive, physiological and behavioral responses the client is experiencing.

Phase 2 focuses on building rapport and establishing the therapeutic relationship. Because clients who have experienced trauma are very vulnerable, it is imperative to provide a nurturing and safe environment, Bagley emphasizes. Once she has established a bond with the client and a sense of safety, Bagley focuses on the person’s present strengths and explores how the client can use those strengths to cope with the trauma.

Bagley begins cognitive-based interventions in Phase 3. Together, she and the client identify thought distortions attached to the trauma and start practicing ways of reframing negative beliefs.

In the fourth phase, Bagley focuses on identifying specific emotions. She teaches clients to practice mindfulness by noting where on their bodies they feel certain emotions and what is happening around them when they experience these feelings. Bagley says this helps clients identify triggers and also aids in bridging the mind-body disconnect that can occur with recent sexual trauma.

In the fifth and final phase, clients build a narrative surrounding their trauma. “At this stage in the therapeutic process, clients should be displaying more stability and management of symptoms,” Bagley says. “This is often apparent through changes in the language clients use to describe their trauma experience, as well as a shift in self-view.”

At this point, Bagley has clients retell their trauma to desensitize their trauma response and to empower them to feel more in control of their story.

It takes a village

Morse often works with other professionals, including law enforcement, to help survivors of sexual violence. She tells clients there are different paths they can take as part of their treatment and asks them what makes sense or seems helpful to them. Some clients are empowered by learning about their legal rights, and the possibility of pursuing justice gives them a sense of agency. For other survivors, gaining strategies to manage anxiety is critical to their daily functioning, Morse says.

When clients choose to seek justice through the legal system, Morse offers to go to the police station with them and sit in on a meeting with detectives. Beforehand, she prepares clients by explaining that they will be asked numerous questions about what happened to them. She also educates them about how lengthy the legal process can be and the emotional toll it may take.

Many of Morse’s clients have experienced harassment at work, and in these cases, they often choose to file a complaint through their employer’s human resources department. To prepare these clients, Morse goes through their employee handbook so they fully understand the company’s harassment policies.

Morse also strives to help survivors of sexual violence feel safe again, which often requires connecting them with outside resources. She frequently recommends self-defense classes, noting that in many cities, there are now free classes offered for survivors of assault. In some cases, reestablishing a client’s sense of safety may require a change in phone number or residence.

For those who struggle with overwhelming anxiety, Morse is a big proponent of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and she refers these clients to a certified EMDR practitioner. If anxiety and depression are impeding her clients’ daily functioning, she has them meet with a psychiatrist to explore the need for short-term medication management of symptoms.

Morse says group therapy can also be a crucial therapeutic tool because it provides a way for survivors to share their stories with others who have experienced sexual trauma. Many community agencies and YWCAs offer free groups, she notes.

Morse also emphasizes the power of just being there for clients. “Many survivors of assault reflect that the most helpful part of the therapeutic process is simply having someone to listen and believe them on their journey,” she says. “Oftentimes, we’ll spend several sessions talking through the details and allowing a woman to rewrite her narrative as an assault survivor.”

When #MeToo is painful

Although counselors generally say that the #MeToo movement is socially necessary and can be personally empowering, they also note that for some survivors, the constant reminders of sexual trauma can have an unintended adverse effect.

“The movement can often feel like a double-edged sword in terms of awareness for survivors,” Bagley says. Although many survivors are grateful that the truth of the widespread nature of sexual violence is being made evident, the sheer volume of stories can be overwhelming. “It floods social media, news outlets [and] radio programs, leaving little escape for survivors,” Bagley explains. “Additionally, the backlash and negative media response to the movement has … a triggering and negative impact.”

Valatka agrees. “You [a survivor] may be on social media, and it’s just a normal day. Then someone shares, and it’s bringing it into your day — bringing it to survivors when they weren’t planning for it.”

Shaina Ali, an LPC and owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions in Orlando, Florida, says that when clients who are survivors of sexual assault or harassment bring up #MeToo, she uses an existential approach. “How does this affect your story? What does this mean for you?” Ali asks clients.

Her intent is to help clients focus on how hearing these stories affects their progress. In some cases, clients realize that they have handled potentially retraumatizing information better than they thought they might, says Ali, who specializes in trauma work. For others, their reactions are an indication that they have more trauma work to do. Ali notes that some of her clients who had come to her for issues unrelated to trauma realized that the #MeToo stories mirrored their own experiences — experiences they previously hadn’t recognized they needed to talk about.

Because #MeToo and other news stories related to mental health — such as the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — can potentially have an effect on any client, Ali always raises such topics in session. She says this serves two purposes: to check in and head off trouble before it starts and to give clients an opportunity to bring up experiences they haven’t previously been ready to share.

Sometimes the triggering comes from the casual conversation of people clients are close to, Hagains points out. As people talk about #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment survivors hear a lot of opinions being shared, some of which are full of blame. It is not uncommon to hear people say things such as, “Well, she went to his apartment, so she deserved it,” Hagains notes.

Hagains tells clients that in these cases, they need to set boundaries by telling friends or family members that they do not wish to discuss the topic and that they will have to agree to disagree. In certain cases, such as with casual Facebook friends, Hagains urges clients to decide how important it is for them to stay in contact. It may be in a client’s best interests to mute those who are making hurtful statements. Sometimes setting boundaries means limiting contact; other times it may become necessary to cease contact altogether. 

What are men learning?

The larger goal of #MeToo is to change the way that men and society as a whole see — and treat — women. Is it working?

Hagains says the topic is definitely coming up in sessions with male clients. She says that about 90 percent of the men she counsels have asked her about behavior — as in what is OK and what isn’t.

“I think a lot of men are reexamining their roles,” she says. Many of them are realizing that what they thought was appropriate or complimentary to women can actually be offensive.

A familiar refrain that Hagains hears in session from male clients who are grappling with the implications of #MeToo: “I thought women liked to be complimented on their bodies.” She responds by telling them that it might be OK to say in a bar but definitely not at work.

Ali, an adjunct professor at both Central Florida University and the Chicago School of Psychology, has also heard increased discussion from men about the topic of sexual assault and harassment, both in her practice and in the classroom. Ali teaches clients and students about harassment, setting boundaries and establishing healthy relationships.

“The way I see it,” says Kessler, “is that #MeToo is not just for women. I want men to see, this is how you treat women.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Adult Child Sexual Abuse Survivors” by Rachel M. Hoffman and Chelsey Zoldan
  • “Intimate Partner Violence — Treating Victims” by Christine E. Murray

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Effective ways to approach sexual assault response

By Hasmik Chakaryan July 10, 2018

The overwhelming number of women who have participated in the #MeToo movement has drawn renewed attention to issues of sexual violence, which remains pervasive in our culture. This newly risen wave has created a refreshed platform for addressing gaps in counselor training for sexual assault response.

Even though statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the U.S. will face sexual assault at some point in their lifetime, very few counseling programs have specific courses designed for training sexual assault response. Instead, counselors learn this “on the job”; we do our best to educate ourselves and to grow based on our experiences.

Those of us who have a special interest in working with this population seek additional training to acquire competence and to keep up with research in the field. Ongoing program evaluation at treatment sites is crucial so that we remain responsible for the outcome of our work and, at the same time, accountable to the public and to the third-party payers. We must constantly ask ourselves: Does what I do make a difference? Is my approach effective?”

The more common experience counselors have working with sexual assault survivors is in the traditional therapy setting, whether one-on-one or in groups, on campuses or within specialized agencies. Working with sexual assault survivors can be long and complicated, but it is often a rewarding journey of healing. Each of us tailors our own theoretical approach and framework to the needs of survivors with the techniques our profession has awarded us. So, we tend to approach sexual assault response from this end, engaging in short- or long-term therapy with survivors at some point on their journeys to heal.

Crisis intervention

An additional way to respond to sexual assault is at its onset, from a crisis intervention perspective. Traditionally, this is where victim advocates come in. Most counselors are not victim advocates, and most victim advocates are not counselors. Likewise, not all sexual assault survivors seek out victim advocate services, especially if they are already in counseling for other things. Regardless, counselors are often on the front lines of sexual assault reports and can be better prepared to handle such situations if they properly equip themselves.

To provide an adequate, timely and holistic response to sexual assault, it is essential that we learn about victim advocacy and incorporate some critical elements of this training into our counseling work when appropriate. Given the lack of specialized preparation during counseling training, I believe that counselors clearly need more tools to help them better respond to sexual assault, and I believe a need exists for an interdisciplinary approach regarding education, prevention and response efforts.

Based on the statistics, at some point during our practice as counselors, we will all encounter a client who reports sexual assault. I have worked in two campus-based counseling centers, and the number of students who reported sexual assault was startlingly high. According to 2016 statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence. In addition, based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published in 2011, it is estimated that 1.3 million women were raped in the past 12 months in the U.S. What I have learned over the course of the past 11 years in practice — as well as from my clients, students and colleagues — is that we, as counselors, need stronger training for providing a more timely and appropriate response to sexual assault.

In attempting to provide additional resources for my students who want to specialize in sexual assault response, I have found that the availability of trainings and educational programs varies widely from state to state. Information on these services and resources is scattered. We need to create education, training and workshops for those who want to specialize in this work. Perhaps what is called for is a nationwide network in which training and specialty certifications are streamlined and accessible in every state.

Meanwhile, I have attempted to put together a user-friendly diagram for counselors working with sexual assault survivors. In the remainder of this article, I will present a model that may help to organize sexual assault response into groupings for individuals who want to easily locate the appropriate next steps after a sexual assault or rape report. Allowing the survivor to have a voice and a choice in what comes next should serve as the most significant guiding element for counselors.

 

A chart of required or recommended action steps to take immediately after a report of sexual assault (courtesy of Hasmik Chakaryan).

 

Response to assault based on immediacy

One important recommendation is to always consider how the individual refers to herself (or himself) before using terms such as “victim” or “survivor.” The chart above walks readers through the required or recommended action steps immediately after a sexual assault report.

First, assess for safety. When working with victims of crime, it is critical to always consider their immediate needs first. It would be challenging and potentially damaging to the client to process any emotional responses without first addressing the physical or physiological needs, much like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy directed.

Second, evaluate psychological needs. What are the individual’s most pressing psychological needs? This is where counselors apply their attending skills and provide the individual with empathy and respect.

From the tens of thousands of unprocessed rape kits (per a 2015 article in USA Today) to recent public rulings reducing sentences for college assaults (CNN, 2016) to new proposed laws that would permit a rapist parental rights (CNN, 2016), it appears that our society sometimes is confused about who the victim is and often participates in victim blaming. This widespread phenomenon often affects the ability of victims to recognize their experiences as assault and themselves as victims. It is imperative that counselors work against these societal/cultural norms by first questioning their own views.

Professionals need to check their assumptions and biases regarding sexual assault and who the victim is prior to sitting down with these individuals face-to-face. Counselors must become outspoken advocates for this population and ensure that the best psychological services are provided for survivors of this crime. This requires us to be nonjudgmental and to assert that a sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. We should include assurances that the survivor is not responsible for either the crime or for the direct effects of that crime.

Third, lay out legal options. Does the survivor want to report the assault? Counselors do not provide legal counsel, but they do need to be informed about certain key elements when working with survivors who discuss legal actions. Most important, never make these individuals feel pressured to report; always allow them to make their own informed decisions.

If survivors decide that they do want to report the crime, inform them of the following:

  • Pursuing legal action requires collaboration with legal services, local police and forensic services. It is vital to process crime scenes immediately while there is still viable evidence and a better chance of locating witnesses to interview for accurate findings.
  • In some states, individuals can access treatment and counseling free of charge when they report the assault.
  • Reporting the assault can be empowering for some survivors and can help them regain some sense of agency. Reporting does not, however, guarantee that the perpetrator will be prosecuted. It is vital to avoid giving survivors false hope and expectations. In fact, a very small percentage of reported sexual assaults end up with the arrest of the perpetrator. According to a 2016 CNN report, of the nearly 300,000 average annual rape and sexual assault victimizations between 2005 and 2010, only about 12 percent resulted in arrests. Such statistics shouldn’t be shared to discourage individuals from pursuing legal actions. Rather, it is critical to process the expectations of sexual assault survivors in counseling.

Forensic exams

It is important to clarify the role of the forensic examiner (or the sexual assault nurse examiner) to sexual assault survivors. These medical professionals are very different from the nurses one might associate with a hospital emergency room. Instead, they are fulfilling a criminal justice role during the sexual assault exam, which is essentially a procedure to collect evidence. It is also imperative to explain the purpose of this forensic exam, the time sensitivity, the statute of limitations and the costs associated with the exam.

If survivors decide to pursue a forensic exam, notify them that they can terminate the exam at any time and can ask for a victim advocate or anyone else they want to be with them in the room. In most states, survivors of sexual assault incur no cost for the exam. The cost depends on what is included in the exam, what lab work and testing are performed, whether testing and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases are completed and whether any injuries incurred during the assault are treated. It is important to check any laws that may hinder the process in any way so that no unrealistic promises are made to survivors.

Counselors working with sexual assault survivors should know that many states process sexual assault forensic exams and related services under the Violence Against Women Act. One valuable resource for professionals and survivors is the RAINN website (rainn.org/articles/rape-kit), which offers a detailed rundown of what happens during the forensic exam. This information helps individuals grasp the importance of the forensic exam for evidence collection and assists them in making informed decisions. For all these reasons and more, independent advocacy is crucial for sexual assault survivors during the exam and throughout the entire process.

Immediate vs. delayed reporting

Providing survivors with information regarding the pros and cons of immediate versus delayed reporting can help them make educated decisions and aid the reporting process. Most of the information that follows in this section on the important elements of reporting and what reporting entails is based on the work of Andrea Sundberg and Dorene Whitworth at the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence.

When a survivor of sexual assault arrives at the emergency room, the police are notified. Officers will interview the survivor for a thorough account of the assault. This helps them collect all of the crucial details while the person’s memory is fresh, giving them a better chance of collecting evidence to aid the legal process.

Providing a report of the assault to police is not the same thing as pressing charges against the perpetrator. Those are separate processes. It is vital for counselors to talk about this with sexual assault survivors and to prepare them as best they can. Not all police officers are trained to work with sexual assault survivors, and this interview may be triggering for these individuals.

Survivors may also choose to delay the reporting until they feel better prepared to handle it emotionally. The potential consequences of delayed reporting can include additional hurdles for thorough investigation, a lack of witnesses and a fading of the person’s memory regarding details of the assault. Delayed reporting may also affect the perceptions and responses of prosecutors and jurors and influence the prosecutor’s ability to obtain a conviction.

No report to law enforcement

Counselors working with sexual assault survivors may assume that the best direction for survivors to take is to immediately report the crime. There are many reasons why survivors may not want to report to law enforcement, however.

Most individuals hesitate to report immediately when there is fear of further danger to self, family or others. Others hesitate to report because of cultural beliefs or because of financial dependence on the perpetrator. Some individuals fear the investigation might reveal some kind of illegal activity related to underage drinking, prostitution, immigration status or other issues. Other individuals are simply terrified at the prospect of facing their perpetrators.

Some survivors will not report to law enforcement because of a sense of shame or embarrassment or because they worry about being blamed for the assault. There are also survivors who do not want to get their perpetrators in trouble because they are family members or are current or former intimate partners of the survivor. Some individuals may fear retaliation, especially if the perpetrator is their superior, employer or supervisor. If the perpetrator is a popular figure, survivors may fear social condemnation and disbelief if they report. Some survivors may lack trust in, or have had a prior negative experience with, law enforcement or the criminal justice system.

After obtaining 40 hours of intensive training in sexual assault response, I volunteered as a victim advocate, providing resources over a crisis hotline to individuals in central Ohio. Often, I would get calls from women saying they had been sexually assaulted by someone involved in law enforcement or the criminal justice system. These women feared more severe consequences if they chose to report. In some cases, these perpetrators were the survivors’ past or current partners; in other cases, they were not related to the survivor at all. In one particular case, the survivor told me over the phone that she feared going to the emergency room because the same police officer who had sexually assaulted her might respond to the call while he was on duty.

Regardless of whether individuals choose to report an assault, a forensic exam is available to them. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 made it easier for all survivors to obtain a “Jane Doe rape kit,” through which they are given a code to identify themselves should they choose to report at a later date. Under this regulation, survivors must be offered a forensic exam and reimbursement for the cost of the exam without being required to participate in the criminal justice system or cooperate with law enforcement. This applies to all states in their applications for STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grants. In addition, survivors are not required to use their insurance benefits to pay for the forensic exams, which can offer them extra protection.

When educating sexual assault survivors about all of the possible options, it is critical not to make any promises that cannot subsequently be fulfilled. It is important to first find out how specific jurisdictions work and what procedures they follow. It is also imperative that counselors not pressure a survivor into any of these steps or decisions just because the counselor thinks it might be the best option. These individuals were already stripped of their choice and autonomy when they were coerced into nonconsensual sex, so it is vital that this agency be given back to them as part of the process that follows.

It is also important for counselors to know that sexual assault survivors are not limited to only one type of reporting. Indeed, there are various kinds of reporting, including:

  • No law enforcement involvement
  • Law enforcement involvement, storage only
  • Law enforcement involvement, anonymous/blind report (blind reporting is not the same as a third-party report; blind reporting means that the victim is involved but not identified)

For additional details on each of these options, refer to usmc-mccs.org/articles/restricted-vs-unrestricted-reports-know-your-options/.

Student/supervisee disclosure

When disclosure of a sexual assault is made by a student or supervisee, it is crucial to be trained in your institution’s Title IX regulations and requirements to respond adequately. The response will also depend on whether the individual is considered under the age of consent in your state.

I usually immediately connect students or supervisees with an on-campus victim advocate who then walks them through the entire process. I offer my expertise and answer their questions and concerns to ease some of their fears before referring them. If they request that I make the initial contact with the victim advocate and help facilitate the meeting, I offer to go to the first meeting with them.

The process of disclosing a sexual assault and deciding whether to report it understandably provokes anxiety in survivors. They are dealing with multiple effects that may include physical, psychological, spiritual and other issues. The most important piece for me is to make sure that I am present, available, attentive, caring, empathetic, responsive and nonjudgmental, and that I am able to provide a safe place for the survivor. I recommend that we all frequently assess our assumptions and biases regarding sexual assault and who the victims are because these are the nuances that can erect barriers between us and sexual assault survivors.

For more information about campus sexual assault prevention and services, see the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault 2014 fact sheet at justice.gov/ovw/page/file/910266/download.

Other considerations

Short-term crisis intervention vs. long-term counseling: Short-term services for sexual assault survivors include the initial crisis response and intervention immediately following the assault. Long-term mental health services might include a variety of therapeutic components such as assessments, goal setting, treatment planning and step-by-step work through each mental health concern and progress toward therapeutic goals.

A 2014 White House task force study of a community sample of rape survivors found that survivor outcomes were better in communities that had a greater number of post-assault resources. This also means that survivors report better outcomes when short-term crisis intervention is followed by long-term services such as a combination of individual counseling and group support work. Sometimes, it also may be beneficial to involve the family in the therapeutic process.

Trauma-informed care for treating sexual assault survivors: Trauma-informed care is a service delivery framework that considers the unique needs of trauma survivors by treatment providers. As part of this approach, important questions, such as how survivors should be treated by clinicians and what clinicians should be aware of when they are the first contact for mental health treatment, are addressed. Trauma-informed care simply adds a context of trauma to whatever theoretical approach and techniques clinicians find appropriate to use in their work with sexual assault survivors. It also brings up critical elements of neuroscience as a background to our clients’ trauma experiences.

Culturally competent counseling: Trauma looks different depending on the culture. In some cultures, women are blamed for being sexually assaulted. They are subsequently stigmatized, isolated and labeled as “damaged goods,” often resulting in them remaining alone for the rest of their lives. In other cultures, laws allow perpetrators of sexual assault to walk free while victims are either banned from the community or suffer severe punishments such as hanging or stoning.

To work effectively with sexual assault survivors in either short-term or long-term settings, it is imperative for counselors to possess strong contextual knowledge of the individual’s cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Such knowledge helps us understand intricate nuances regarding the survivor’s self-perception, self-worth and perception of sexual acts, including those that were not consensual. It also allows for a more open conversation in a safe and nonjudgmental environment so that counselors can better guide survivors through their unique circumstance.

It is our ethical responsibility as counselors to continuously seek more education, awareness and self-growth in relation to culturally responsible and evidence-based counseling services.

Sexaual assault response training for counselors who desire to specialize: In most states, various sexual assault response teams carry out victim advocate trainings. These trainings are typically 40-hour, intensive educational experiences that include interdisciplinary input from experts in various specialty areas. Counselors who are not equipped to work with sexual assault survivors can always find a victim advocate to refer to in the area.

For more information on locating victim advocates in your area, see the National Organization for Victim Assistance website at trynova.org/crime-victim/advocacy/list/.

For more information on victim advocate roles and trainings, see the National Center for Victims of Crime website at victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/get-help-bulletins-for-crime-victims/what-is-a-victim-advocate-.

For hotlines and other helpful links from the National Center for Victims of Crime, see victimsofcrime.org/help-for-crime-victims/national-hotlines-and-helpful-links.

 

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Hasmik Chakaryan is an assistant professor and director of clinical programs in the Department of Professional Counseling at Webster University. In addition, she is a licensed professional counselor, a clinical supervisor, a victim advocate and a trauma specialist. Her research also focuses on internationalizing the profession of counseling. Contact her at hchakaryan06@webster.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.