Campus resources help sexual assault survivors overcome trauma and PTSD

There are survivors of sexual assault everywhere, and there are many resources at Utah State University to help survivors deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges.

The Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information office, USU Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Title IX office are the main on-campus organizations dedicated to helping victims of interpersonal violence and sexual assault.

These resources help survivors receive medical care, file reports on campus or in the criminal justice system, help with time management and organization, and many other things that a survivor may need.

There are also therapists available to help survivors work through trauma and find productive ways to move forward while dealing with emotions and memories.

Recently, there has been a growing focus on how experiencing sexual assault could cause PTSD. Dr. Michael Twohig, a professor of psychology at USU, specializes in working with individuals experiencing PTSD and has collaborated with the resource offices on campus. He said that “not every person who experiences a sexual assault will be diagnosable with PTSD, but many will be.”

To this same end, Felicia Gallegos, the Outreach and Prevention Coordinator at SAAVI, said that it is important to understand that while there are common patterns, “everybody’s experience is different, and everybody’s reaction to what they experience is different.”

For example, one survivor may cope with PTSD by being physically, mentally and emotionally drained, but it could be the exact opposite for someone else: they could channel all their energy into work or school to stay distracted.

Other reactions include depression, anxiety, inability to focus, eating disorders, nightmares, flashbacks, intermittent remembrance, drug and/or alcohol abuse and self-harm.

Gallegos said that during a traumatic situation, the body has three common responses. “We have fight, flight, or freeze,” she said. “This freeze response is what we call ‘tonic immobility,’ and that’s what many survivors usually experience. Following the traumatic event, you’re still in that frozen space, and as you heal, your brain is slowly ‘thawing.’”

There are benefits of seeking help during this “thawing” period, mainly to understand that the freeze response is normal and that tonic immobility could be a starting point for post-traumatic stress.

Feeling guilt, shame, or confusion about their experience is a common challenge for survivors when deciding whether or not to come forward about an assault. However, Gallegos said that the best thing someone can do is to banish those thoughts.

“The majority of situations happen in a gray area. It’s rarely black or white,” Gallegos said. “Almost every single person who walks through our door has those thoughts.”

People tend to think that the situation has to be “bad enough” before they get help or that they have to fit some societal profile to be taken seriously. However, Gallegos said, “there is no such thing as bad enough.”

In addition, there is a slow societal shift redefining what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault. Specifically, men and members of the LGBTQ community are coming forward more and more with their own experiences of being assaulted.

As part of the #MeToo movement, actor and former NFL player Terry Crews publicized his experience of being sexually assaulted and his resulting PTSD.

When Gallegos saw that this story did not lead to more people sharing experiences like his, she was frustrated and expressed that society needs to break down stereotypes and barriers. “It’s limiting our view of violence, which is limiting people seeking help,” she said.

“Gender violence knows no gender,” Gallegos said. “But they’re still having the same reaction to their trauma as anybody else because trauma also doesn’t know gender. No matter what background you come from, what gender you identify as, your sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter. Anybody can be a survivor.”

Hillary Renshaw, the Title IX director at USU, said that the purpose of supportive measures is to limit triggering situations or post-traumatic stress reactions in academic or interpersonal settings. “All of us on campus serve all survivors equally,” she said.

Renshaw said that the goal of the resources on campus is to “end sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Being on campus may be difficult for a survivor for a variety of reasons, but campus could also turn into a safe haven when an individual works with SAAVI, CAPS, Title IX and others.

“I have one main suggestion,” Twohig said. “Work with the professionals on campus. CAPS and SAAVI collaborate really well and together they offer wonderful services.”

Gallegos also encourages students to seek professional help sooner rather than later. “Somebody who has [professional] support is going to be able to heal maybe quicker or more thoroughly,” she said. “It’s not impossible to heal without that; it just lightens the burden a little.”

A survivor can have access to professional support immediately as there is no waitlist for supportive measures from Title IX or an advocate from SAAVI. Both of the full-time therapists at SAAVI speak Spanish as well.

When walking into a resource office, no report is necessary and the visit is completely confidential. If a survivor decides they just need someone to listen to them, that is perfectly fine.

Indeed, according to Renshaw, “the majority of students who visit us need resources and supportive measures, but are not ready to file a formal complaint.”

“We really put it in the survivor’s hands to do what they want going forward,” said Gallegos.

If a survivor decides they do not want to visit someone in person, there are online resources available on the CAPS website that people can use on their own to work through their stress.

If someone confides in you about an assault, Gallegos said that the most important thing is to believe them. “Research shows that if a survivor confides in somebody and they aren’t believed, they’re likely to never tell a single person ever again,” she said. “It’s really important that everybody’s equipped with how to respond.”

The key is that the survivor knows they have someone on their side and are wrapped in resources from all avenues that they might need, especially if they experience PTSD.

Gallegos commented on the need to create open dialogues about this topic so that we can work to eradicate sexual violence. She feels that’s something each member of the Aggie family can do: start conversations, be an upstander, and challenge stigmas surrounding sexual violence and PTSD in survivors.

If you or someone you know needs help overcoming the effects of sexual violence, visit the USU Sexual Assault Resources page.