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When the Heart Says No: Sounding the alarm on sexual assaults

Editor’s note: This column contains details that may be disturbing to some readers.

Editor’s note: This column contains details that may be disturbing to some readers.

In my last column, I told you about how sexual assaults are exploding across the NWT and that an estimated 11 sexual assaults happen every day in the NWT.

In fact, in 2020 our rate of sexual assaults was more than seven times the national rate, and it’s not only the NWT. The Canadian Women’s Foundation says 30 per cent of Canadian women over 14 reported being sexually assaulted. Whoa!! That means of 10 women you know, three of them have probably been sexually assaulted.

To boot, Indigenous women are sexually assaulted three times more often than non-indigenous women.

And do not think you are safe if you are with someone you know. Over half of sexual assault victims know the person who did it; the known offender is usually a friend, then a neighbor or someone you know but who is not a close friend.

Effects of sexual of assault

It’s hard to imagine the trauma and resulting pain and suffering that sexual assault causes.

It can be very devastating and may affect a victim forever. Different people are affected in different ways, so there is no wrong or right way to feel or react. Many different emotions and behaviors appear, disappear and can reappear.

Sexual assault survivors often feel ashamed, that they are bad, permanently flawed or dirty. They can also feel that the abuse was their fault, making it hard to blame the person who assaulted them, especially if the person is close to them.

It’s often hard to trust other people and even themselves. Some people don’t feel safe even in their own homes, especially if that’s where they were attacked.

Yet, some may also trust everyone. A survivor’s sense of safety might get distorted and they might think things that are dangerous are safe; and they will think safe situations are dangerous.

Many feel isolated or alone because they feel they don’t deserve support and that others will not want to be their friends or lovers, especially if people have avoided them after their disclosure.

Many survivors can’t remember what happened or can’t explain what they remember.

Some survivors dissociate during the sexual assault and can say it was like floating out of their body or like watching the abuse happen. Sometimes it will happen to the survivor again when a memory or something happens to bring up emotions.

Although going through some of these effects, survivors are also often in denial and say things like, “I’m OK,” or, “I don’t need anything.” Or they can make it seem not as bad and say things like, “It wasn’t that bad,” or, “It only happened once.”

Some survivors numb themselves during the abuse. If the numbness continues afterward, they will fight the numbness by doing things that provide intense sensations like cutting or injuring themselves.

Many people find it hard to concentrate or have eating disorders, anxiety, and physical symptoms in areas on their body affected by the assault. Emotions may be all over the place, from angry, sad, to disoriented, distant or calm.

Survivors may not be able to stop thinking about the assault, or they may forget parts of it. They may continuously think about things they should have done differently. They may have nightmares or think of being in a similar situation and “mastering” the event.

Other things that may happen are not being able to sleep, having panic attacks, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide, physical changes, anger, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Supporting a sexual assault victim

It’s not easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted. It’s also hard for the survivor, especially when telling it to someone they care about. Be sure to be supportive and non-judgemental.

A very good way to support someone is by being BRAVE. This doesn’t mean to not be scared. It’s actually an acronym. B-R-A-V-E:

Begin by listening without pushing for more details- Remember, you’re being supportive. Tell them, “You’re not alone./I care about you and I’m here to listen.”

Respect confidentiality. Tell them how and when you will share what they told you.

Ask what support looks like to them. Don’t assume they want to report it to the police.

Validate them. Tell them, “I believe you./It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” “It’s not your fault./ You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Keep reminding them that the only person to blame is the assailant.

Empathize. Try to understand how they feel by putting yourself in their shoes. Some things you can say are: “I’m sorry this happened./This shouldn’t have happened to you.”

“This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me…”

You can also remind them that counsellors are trained people who can and will support them. And, help them to think of people in their life that they feel comfortable going to for support.

Check in on the survivor once in a while to remind them you care about them and that you believe them.

Here are some support services:

-Look up either Victim Services or NWT Community Counselor Services

-Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868

-Text CONNECT to 686868

-NWT Helpline at 1-800-661-0844

-Canadian Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-353-2273

-Canada Suicide Prevention Services (24/7) at 1-833-456-4566

-Text support: 45645 from 2 p.m. - 10 p.m. MT daily