Opinion: Getting help for survivors of sexual assault

Mike Hovancsek

I enter my facility and pass by the waiting room on the way to my office. A nervous-looking young woman is sitting in one of the chairs, staring at the floor, her body held as tight as a fist.

As I enter the reception area, a member of the support staff hands me the woman’s file. I look at the front page of the paperwork, where the client has written the issue that she wants to address in therapy.

“Rape,” it says in a self-conscious scrawl. 

I wish I could say that this is an uncommon occurrence.  As a mental health counselor at Townhall II, however, I see variations of this scenario almost every day. 

There is certainly a need for the services my agency provides. Every year 284,000 Americans age 12 or older are sexually assaulted or raped. 

College campuses are no exception. It is estimated that 20 percent of women and 4 percent of males are sexually assaulted during their college years.  Many of these people never tell anyone or report the crime.

Remember that young woman sitting out there in the waiting room? She may feel scared and powerless, but I already know that she is a survivor. It takes an incredibly strong person to have a traumatic experience and to get up, brush herself off and get to work addressing it.

That is someone who I respect and admire, even before I know anything else about her (this idea applies to people of any gender, age, and race. I am only using the female pronoun here to be consistent with the example shared above).

There are a lot of ways that this young woman could have talked herself out of the help she needs. She could have let any number of thoughts get in her way, including, “Asking for help makes me weak,” “If I talk about my trauma, it will make me go crazy,” and “I don’t want to dwell on my trauma, I would rather just push those thoughts away and go on with my life.”

Fortunately, there are strong counterarguments to all of these ideas.

First of all, there is nothing weak about asking for help. That kind of thing takes a great deal of strength and courage. The heroes in our society are not the people who have everything handed to them; they are the people who encounter hardships and take the actions needed to survive them.

Further, the goal of trauma therapy is not to endlessly dwell on upsetting things from the past. That would leave people stuck in an unhealthy role of the victim. Instead, the goal is to take a look at the past, learn from it and then go into the future, unencumbered by the pain of the past.

It is the journey from a victim role to survivor role.

All of this sounds scary. Wouldn’t it be easier just to push away thoughts of a sexual assault and move on with life?

Unfortunately, that idea doesn’t tend to pan out very well. Traumatic events that are denied can shape a person’s feelings and behaviors from the shadows. For example, a person who is molested as a child may develop a painful fear of intimacy as an adult and not even see the connection between the past trauma and the current relationship style.

Another thing we know about unaddressed trauma is it can get unleashed at unexpected times. For example, a person may be sexually assaulted and later have a panic attack in an elevator because the forced intimacy of that space triggered similar feelings to the assault.

Suppressed trauma can be a bomb that is waiting to explode. Processed trauma, however, loses its power over time and leads to new strengths.

When a client walks into my office for the first time, she is a stranger. Once we get to work on that person’s issues, however, a picture starts to emerge. It is a picture of hardship and struggle, but it is also a picture of a unique personal journey.

Ultimately, it is a portrait of the survivor within the story and as it unfolds, it becomes a masterpiece.

There are a lot of ways for people to get the help they need. There is the agency where I work, Townhall II (155 N. Water Street, 330-678-3006) and Coleman Professional Services (5982 Rhodes Rd., 330-673-1347). Both can often offer services that are inexpensive or free. There are also support hotlines that can provide assistance 24 hours a day (330-678-4357) and private practices in the area that may be able to offer additional services. 

Everyone, regardless of gender, age, or race, deserves a shot at peace and healing.

Mike Hovancsek is a therapist at Townhall II.