By Grace Jennings-Edquist and Sana Qadar
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, reading the details of the crimes can provoke a wide range of difficult emotions.
Some will feel vindicated and relieved that action is being taken, but anxious as the matter makes its way through the legal process, says Hetty Johnston, executive director of child protection advocacy organisation Bravehearts.
“For many survivors, they may have witnessed other people actually not make it to today as a result of what’s happened to them,” adds Tarja Malone, who manages the helpline at the Blue Knot Foundation, which supports adults impacted by childhood trauma.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of grief and loss for those who haven’t made it to today as a result of the abuse they’ve endured.”
If you’re feeling emotional after reading coverage of sexual abuse — or you’re supporting a loved one in that situation — there are several things these experts recommend.
Whether it’s social media or the news, “it’s good advice for people to limit how much media they digest around this if they’re feeling triggered,” says Ms Malone.
If you’re feeling panicky or anxious, don’t feel “compelled to keep digesting information about it over and over again”.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- beyondblue on 1300 224 636
- Blue Knot Foundationon 1300 657 380
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527
When you see details of child sexual abuse in the news, actively deciding not to read the details of the crime might prevent you from feeling overwhelmed, explains psychotherapist Rita Barnett, who has worked with survivors of sexual violence.
“If you do read the details, try not to picture it or use your imagination when you’re reading the words; just try to separate them as much as you can,” Ms Barnett says.
“When you have a vivid picture in your mind, it’s very hard to remove that.”
Lean on support systems
Don’t bottle up how you’re feeling.
Reach out to friends or your counsellor, even your GP — anyone who understands your background and why this might be difficult for you.
“Speak to your friends, speak to your therapist — keep talking,” says Ms Johnston.
“If you don’t have those kinds of supports at the moment, then calling some of the helplines available would be a really good idea,” Ms Malone says.
If talking is really difficult, Carolyn Worth from the CASA (Centres Against Sexual Assault) Forum and manager at South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault suggests writing down how you’re feeling.
“Some people write a letter to someone — they’re not going to send it, but they write it out and they get some structure to their thoughts in some way.”
Other people find it useful to write a journal, she adds.
Spend time on self-care
There’s plenty you can do to help yourself feel better.
It may sound simple, but keeping to a routine, getting plenty of rest and exercise, and eating regular meals can help you feel more settled.
“Don’t suddenly decide to eat a whole packet of Tim Tams, because it won’t make you feel better in the long run,” Ms Worth says.
“And don’t have eight cups of coffee, which will hype you up.”
If you’re drawn to booze or illegal drugs, try to avoid them.
“It just makes things worse in the end; at some point, you will have to face those negative feelings.”
Instead, Ms Worth recommends making time for relaxation.
“What is it you really like doing? Is it watching first-class trash on TV? Then allow yourself to do that. Or take a bath, listen to music,” she says.
“If you’re into meditation, just sit and go and do that for a while … because we tend to do that when we’re feeling good, but not always when we really need it most.”
And if you’re stuck at work feeling emotional, take some time out for lunch or a walk. Perhaps you could ring a friend and chat.
If you’re really having trouble coping, Ms Malone suggests speaking to someone you trust at work: “Let them know you’ve received some news that’s been difficult,” and consider taking some time off.
Seek professional help if you need it
Feeling angry, sad or distressed after reading or hearing about abuse is understandable. But it’s wise to keep in mind that, if these negative feelings continue, a therapist or counsellor may help.
“If you’re still bouncing around about the same thing and you don’t feel any better at the end of a week, then ring up and make an appointment to see someone,” Ms Worth says.
“It’s bad for anyone to be that heightened for that long.”
Deal with deniers
As difficult as it is to deal with, there’s a chance you’ll encounter individuals who deny specific cases of abuse took place or blame the victims.
Unless arguing is cathartic for you, it’s probably best to walk away when you hear these comments, Ms Worth suggests.
“It’s like dealing with trolls — you’re wasting your time, you’re just giving them oxygen,” she says.
If a loved one is struggling
The most important thing you can do for someone who’s struggling is to simply be there.
“Be there to listen and to hear their experiences, distress or anger,” Ms Malone says.
“Normalise the responses the person might be having.”
You can also “gently talk to them about reaching out to professional support”, she adds. Consider going with them to a counsellor or being there while they ring a helpline.
It might be worth directly asking your loved one whether they’d like to discuss their feelings with you, Ms Worth suggests. Or they may prefer to simply be with you, doing something pleasant.
“It might be taking the dog to the beach, so you could do that and share with them,” Ms Worth says.
“If they want to watch something, sit with them so you’re there.”
Then, if they want to talk, you’ve made space so they can easily open up.
One more tip: “Leave the shame and the blame and all of that to the people who perpetrate the crime,” Ms Johnston says.
“Give that responsibility back to the perpetrator.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for legal reasons.
Posted 26 Feb 201926 Feb 2019, updated 22 Aug 201922 Aug 2019