The Importance of Taking a Mental Health Inventory After Experiencing Sexual Assault

By Chelsy Ranard

In September 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her full testimony of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The world watched as she struggled through her testimony in an emotional tale of sexual assault. For those watching, it was powerful. For those watching who had experienced something similar, it was both inspiring and heart wrenching at the same time. For some, it was triggering. And still, Kavanaugh was elected as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Whether your sexual assault happened yesterday or 20 years ago, taking a mental health inventory is important. Sometimes, even when you think you have put the pieces back together, something triggering can happen and take a toll on your mental health. For this reason, it’s important to always pay attention to your mental health after you’ve experienced sexual assault — no matter how long ago it was.

The Sexual Assault Issue
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three women and one in six men in the U.S. experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Almost half of all multiracial women and over 45 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native women experienced some form of sexual violence. Also, 81 percent of women and 35 percent of men report significant impacts such as PTSD as a result of the trauma caused by an incident of sexual violence. In terms of campus sexual assault, more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims do not report.

These numbers are staggering. Sexual assault is an epidemic. Not only are these numbers overwhelming, but many rape kits have not even been tested. This sends a very clear and heartbreaking message to victims about coming forward or being treated seriously. For victims, the message is that their assault doesn’t matter, or that they aren’t believed. When mental health can be in such a fragile state after experiencing this type of trauma, being failed by the criminal justice system can exacerbate those feelings.

Common Mental Health Responses
There is no “right” way for your mental health to respond to sexual assault. Some people appear to be fine; others may be in denial; and many break down. It is helpful to know, however, that some responses are common. PTSD is a mental health response to trauma that can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts. Depression, feeling hopeless, or a loss of energy is common. Dissociation from your life or not feeling present can be a common feeling. You might feel scared, guilty, weak, angry, in shock, numb, or embarrassed. All of these feelings are normal.

However, just because a feeling is normal doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Your body may also experience physical changes such as a loss or rise in appetite. You may feel fatigued, tense, or shaky. Your sleeping patterns may change. You may notice changes in your libido. If you feel any of these mental health or physical responses, it’s important to take note of them so they don’t take over. Know that these feelings can come right after the experience or long after it. Either way, it’s important to know where to go to seek the help you need.

Seeking the Help You Need
After you take an inventory of your mental health, it’s important to get the help you need if you’re struggling. Sometimes that help can mean talking to someone, and sometimes that help can come as a form of self-care. Whatever it means to you, it’s important that you do it. Here are some common ways to seek help if your mental health is taking a toll as a result of experiencing sexual assault:

Talking to a therapist: If your mental health is in trouble, a therapist can help. Whether it’s talk therapy or help with medication, it’s extremely useful to discuss a treatment plan with a therapist who is educated in how to help you. Many survivors find that their therapist was instrumental in their recovery from sexual assault.

Finding a support group: Whether you choose to find an online support group or go to one in person, it can be helpful to talk to others who have been in your situation. You might check with your school or search your city on the RAINN network.

Calling a hotline: RAINN also has a 24-hour hotline you can call. You can get support, get assistance finding help near your location, talk through what happened, get information about the laws in your area, or get basic medical information. The number is 1-800-656-HOPE.

Talking to loved ones: Sometimes it’s important to open up about what happened and how it’s affecting you. Talking to close friends, relatives, or a significant other when you’re feeling triggered by your sexual assault can help you to feel safe and supported.

Journaling: If you’re nervous about talking to others, it can be helpful to get these feelings out by journaling. You can also do this in conjunction with other types of help as a form of self-care. The important thing here is getting those feelings out.

Staying healthy: This means maintaining a healthy eating schedule, staying away from substance abuse as a way of coping, and taking extra steps to be sure you’re getting good sleep. It’s common to make unhealthy choices if your mental health isn’t in a good place, so make sure you’re combating that.

Practicing self-care in your own way: Taking a bath, reading, doing yoga, or baking are all examples of self-care. Self-care activities are different for each person, but the idea is that you’re doing something to nurture yourself.

Taking Note of Your Triggers
When Dr. Ford gave her testimony, it was not only triggering for her but also for many survivors watching. Her testimony echoed the story of so many others, and the fear that so many others have after experiencing an assault like hers. The #MeToo movement is a huge movement to bring awareness to those who have experienced any type of sexual misconduct, but for some the movement can be triggering to their experience. These moments are both important and traumatic for survivors, and it’s okay to feel both of those things.

Not only is it important to take note of your triggers, it’s also important to have a plan for when they happen. Even something like a pap smear can become triggering after trauma. Dealing with triggers is about making note of them, avoiding them, and coping with them. Making a note of them helps you to be prepared for a triggering situation, or able to avoid certain situations altogether. Coping may mean discussing the trigger with associated parties, like your medical provider giving you a Pap smear. It may mean learning to breathe and keep yourself calm. It may mean leaving uncomfortable situations altogether. It all starts with taking note of what triggers you.

Life After Sexual Assault
Life after sexual assault is still filled with happiness, loving relationships, and feeling safe. Many parts may feel less happy, or less safe, but it’s important to note that there is the reality of a happy life after trauma. However, it’s always important to be observant about your mental health in it’s connection to your assault — no matter how much time has gone by. You never know when you may be triggered by something, so it’s best to stay alert. Despite the fact that you’ll always want to be paying attention to your mental health, life after sexual assault will still have its beauty.

When Dr. Ford gave her testimony, many couldn’t watch, many wept, and many felt the trigger of their assault in their chest as she spoke. Whether your assault just happened or happened 36 years ago, like Dr. Ford’s, triggers can make it feel like it happened yesterday. Know that sexual assault is affecting many other women as well. Know that many difficult mental and physical responses are common and that there are many ways to receive the support you need. Know that making note of triggers is important, and that life after sexual assault can still involve happiness. No matter how much time has gone by, you still need to check on yourself and make sure you’re okay after experiencing trauma.

 

 

 

Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She is passionate about feminism, is a shark enthusiast, and can be found playing Frisbee with her dog, Titan. Follow her on Twitter.

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