After #MeToo: healing from the trauma of sexual assault

Within two weeks, 94 percent of women survivors will experience PTSD. 

Desdemona Dallas
25 January 2018

Credit: Artem Kovalev on Unsplash via YES! Magazine.

In January 2018 the red carpet of the Golden Globe Awards was not the usual sea of dazzling gowns and blinding jewelry. Instead, a shadow of black engulfed the night. Actresses alongside activists wore black as a proclamation of solidarity with sexual assault survivors within the entertainment industry and workplaces across the country.

Connected to the “blackout” was Time’s Up, a movement aimed at ending sexual violence and inequality in the workplace. The initiative aims to bridge the gap between Hollywood players and those who experience sexual assault from less privileged backgrounds.

 “Time’s Up is a unified call for change from women in entertainment for women everywhere,” states its website. “From movie sets to farm fields to boardrooms alike, we envision nationwide leadership that reflects the world in which we live.”

With about 19 million viewers watching, the awards ceremony offered perhaps the largest platform to address sexual violence since the #MeToo movement began on social media. But recognizing this crisis is only half the battle, because for many the aftermath of sexual assault is just the beginning of a lifetime of healing.

In November, an online campaign inspired by the #MeToo movement launched in the hopes of encouraging sexual assault survivors to seek the resources necessary for recovery. Suitably named #HealMeToo, the campaign was created by Meghan Patenaude with the National Organization of Women, New York chapter, and is bringing the issue of trauma caused by sexual assault to the general public. Since a video created by the #HealMeToo campaign went live on the Huffington Post in November, it has been viewed about half a million times.

Patenaude, who is a survivor herself, describes the importance of bringing attention to these traumas. “It just seemed like there was really something missing, and we wanted to be able to connect with people and share the aftermath,” she explains. “It doesn’t just end with the story. Everyone who just posted to #MeToo is also suffering, most likely, from PTSD, and that’s kind of the story that we have never really heard before.”

Within two weeks following sexual assault, 94 percent of women will also experience post-traumatic stress disorder, reported the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 1992. PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it—and includes a variety of symptoms, varying from flashbacks and nightmares to severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

PTSD can affect an individual’s ability to work, to have close and meaningful relationships, and can trigger addictions and unhealthy behaviors. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found in a study that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. Those who experience this condition due to sexual assault often find they need to avoid certain social situations and people likely to trigger a negative response. Going to the park, grabbing a beer with friends at the bar, walking down a dark street—these simple tasks can heighten fear and anxiety for those suffering from PTSD.

Survivor Colleen Kane, a 23-year-old living in New York City, says that sharing her experiences with the #HealMeToo campaign has helped her handle intense emotions that arise after being sexually assaulted. “It can be very overwhelming, and in the first few months I felt completely isolated and I didn’t feel my close friends really understood what I was going through.”

Kane’s experience is familiar to those who have been through similar trauma. It is this sentiment of isolation and separation that is what the #HealMeToo campaign is hoping to negate.

Patenaude wanted to bring attention to PTSD among survivors, and found that linking to the #MeToo movement would be the best way. The campaign has been featured on Refinery29, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, and Ebony Magazine.

“This project came out of just really wanting to help women fight PTSD and being able to create the first sense of community around it,” she says. “I think this campaign plays an important part in getting the public to realize the aftermath of sexual assault and, further, how to heal.” Women have participated through Twitter, Facebook, and the campaign’s online message board, and the campaign has offered them an umbrella under which they can safely discuss triggering topics so often kept from public view.

The website offers survivors a variety of tools, including a website, message board, videos, and social media threads, which all focus on survivors’ personal accounts of working past PTSD. The website also links to organizations that specialize in helping victims after an assault has occurred (After Silence, RAINN, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the PTSD Alliance, to name a few). Health organizations like Mount Sinai Health System and Teen Source have referred their patients to the #HealMeToo website as a resource.

Since the start of the campaign in November, a guidebook was created to combine the stories of 40 survivors. The guidebook is available online and contains words of encouragement and advice about how to start recovering from PTSD after being sexually assaulted.

“There’s nothing more powerful than advice from survivor to survivor,” Patenaude says. “The campaign [does] not just spread stories, it spreads advice from people who have been there, from people who are going through it, and who are still fighting through it.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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