How to Support a Friend
In the immediate aftermath:
- Ensure you and your friend are both out of immediate danger. Call 911 or the Yale Police Department at 203-432-4400 if you feel you are in danger.
- People have very different responses to trauma, so your friend may not act in the way you would expect. In many cases, people try to carry on as normal as a protective response to trauma, so your friend may become focused on going to class or going to bed in the immediate aftermath of their assault. This is in no way an indication of how serious their assault was. There is no “correct” way to act after being assaulted.
- Assure them the assault was not their fault. Do not ask blaming questions such as, “Why didn’t you scream?” or tell your friend what you think they should have done. You should believe your friend unconditionally, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a stranger or someone you know.
- However angry and upset you may be, it is important that you remain calm for your friend. Although there are important steps you should try to ensure they take (see below,) do not tell them they “must” take a certain course of action.
- Encourage your friend to get medical attention as soon as possible, and offer to accompany them. Even if they are not visibly injured, they may be at risk of sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. If they may have been exposed to HIV, it is critical that they begin PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) as soon as possible to prevent HIV infection.
- If your friend requires emergency medical care, call them an ambulance. If you are on the Yale campus and your friend does not require emergency care, you should take them to the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital (20 York Street) where they can give them medical care as necessary and gather forensic evidence, often known as a rape kit. While Yale Health can give medical attention, they cannot gather forensic evidence for legal reasons. If you are unsure about what to do, call the 24-hour SHARE Center hotline at 203-432-2000. SHARE can call ahead to the hospital for you, send a counselor to accompany you, or arrange transportation.
- Forensic evidence can be collected up to 5 days after an assault, but it is best to do it as soon as possible. Your friend should not shower, change their clothes, brush their teeth or hair, or wash their hands. If possible, they should avoid going to the bathroom, but if they must urinate, they should save the urine in a clean container and bring it with them to the hospital. They should also bring a change of clothes to the hospital, as their clothes may be needed for evidence. If your friend thinks they may have been drugged, ask the hospital to test their urine. Leave the scene of the assault as untouched as possible – do not wash sheets, dispose of condoms, or tidy up.
- Having a rape kit done does not commit your friend to anything, but can be critically important in giving them more options in the future. Even if they do not wish to pursue a complaint immediately, the rape kit will preserve vital forensic evidence that could be used in a criminal case or UWC complaint. The State of Connecticut will cover the cost of administering the rape kit.
Supporting a friend through their healing process:
- Everyone deals with trauma differently, but it is common for survivors of sexual assault to experience shock, anger, self-blame, shame, helplessness, denial, mood swings and fear. They may have difficulty eating, sleeping or concentrating. They may lash out at those close to them. Some people have a self-protective response to trauma, and try to act as if nothing happened. There is no “correct” way to respond to being sexually assaulted.
- The best way you can support your friend is by listening. Listen without an agenda – do not try to define their assault for them. Normally, when we listen to a friend, we will often compare something they say to an experience of our own. If your friend is talking about their assault, do not do this, unless you are referring to your own assault or an equally traumatic experience. You don’t want to sound as if you are trivializing your friend’s assault.
- Ensure your friend knows their assault was not their fault, and that you believe them and are on their side unconditionally. Questions can often sound unintentionally judgmental – if you need to ask questions to get a better sense of what happened, it may be a good idea to preface your questions by saying, “If I ask you questions, it’s because I want to really understand your experience, not because I think there’s anything you did wrong or should have done.”
- Yale is a small college and if your friend was assaulted by another student, it is likely that you will know them. Avoid saying things like, “They never seemed like the sort of person who would do this.”
- On a practical level, you can help your friend by ensuring they are getting enough to eat; getting lecture notes for them if they don’t feel able to go to class; encouraging them to talk to their Dean to work out a manageable plan to approach their classes, and to get Dean’s Excuses and Temporary Incompletes if necessary; and help them work out ways to avoid their attacker.
- Encourage your friend to get professional support – the SHARE Center at Yale is excellent, and can provide both 1-1 counseling and support groups. They could also get support from their Dean, Froco, Peer Liaison, religious leader or coach. They should be aware that paid administrators, faculty, staff, athletic directors, coaches and trainers, freshman counselors and CCE’s are all mandatory reporters, meaning they are legally obligated to report sexual misconduct to Yale, regardless of how they hear about it. In practice, this means should you or your friend speak to a mandatory reporter, your friend would receive an email from the Title IX co-ordinator detailing resources and available options – they are not obligated to reply or take any further action. The SHARE Center and Walden Peer Counseling are exempt from mandatory reporting requirements, and are completely confidential.
How to help someone who is having a flashback or panic attack:
- It is common for survivors of sexual assault to experience panic attacks and flashbacks. These may begin immediately after their assault, or not until months afterwards. They are usually triggered by something that reminds the survivor of their assault – it could be something obvious, such as seeing their attacker, or something less obvious, such as hearing a song that was playing when they were assaulted.
- It is very frightening to witness someone having a panic attack or flashback, but there are techniques you can use to help. If your friend has asthma, a heart condition, or another medical condition that could be affected by heart palpitations and shortness of breath, you should call them an ambulance if they have a panic attack or flashback.
- Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear that typically last about 20-30 minutes. Common symptoms of a panic attack include a highly accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, hyperventilation or difficulty breathing, chest tightness, shaking, nausea, dizziness, and fainting. Hyperventilating (taking short, shallow, quick breaths) causes increased carbon dioxide levels in your body, which can cause your hands and feet to cramp or curl up to the point where you cannot move them – this can be very frightening. If your friend has a panic attack, there are several things you can do to help:
- Take them to a quiet, uncrowded place. If this is not possible or they are unable to move, attempt to calmly and quickly clear the room you are in. Having people watching or crowding around them can be very upsetting for someone who is having a panic attack.
- Your priority is to help them get their breathing under control. If possible, get them a paper (never plastic) bag to breathe into. Tell them to take deep, slow breaths, and breathe with them. Ask them if they would like you to hold their hands. Their hands may be curled up because of their imbalanced carbon dioxide levels. This can be very painful, so ask them if they would like you to hold their hands straight.
- If necessary, kneel or sit so you are on your friend’s eye level and can make eye contact. Speak to your friend in short, simple, affirming sentences, such as, “You can get through this,” “I am proud of you, you’re doing great,” “Stay in the present, focus on your breathing,” “I am here with you, you are safe.”
- When they begin to calm down, ask them to slowly count backwards from 100.
- Flashbacks are sudden, vivid, disturbing memories from previous traumatic experiences. During a flashback, the survivor feels as if the memory is taking place at the current moment, and they are reliving it. They may be unable to connect with reality, and feel as if their attacker is physically present. Flashbacks are extremely disorienting and frightening. If your friend is having a flashback, there are several ways you can help:
- Take your friend to a quiet, uncrowded place. If this is not possible or they are unable to move, attempt to calmly and quickly clear the room you are in. Having people watching or crowding around them can be very upsetting for someone who is having a flashback.
- A flashback causes disassociation, so your priority is to “ground” your friend and help them come back to reality. Use their name when you speak to them, and tell them calmly and clearly that they are having a flashback and the trauma is not happening again. Remind them of their current surroundings and encourage them to breathe deeply and slowly. For example, you could say, “Jordan, this is Charlie. You are having a flashback. What you’re experiencing is not real. I’m here. You’re safe. We’re in Trumbull, in our suite, sitting on the futon in the common room. It’s going to be okay. Take deep breaths.”
- It may be comforting for your friend if you hold their hands, but always ask before you make any physical contact. As with a panic attack, their hands may be painfully clenched and they may want you to straighten them out.
- As they begin to calm down and become more aware of their surroundings, you can use a technique called “grounding”, in which you ask your friend to describe their surroundings. Ask them specific questions – for example, to list all the colors or pieces of furniture in the room, or the different sounds they can hear.
- Ask if your friend would like a blanket wrapped around them or the door closed to make them feel safer.
- As they become more aware of their surroundings, ask your friend if they would like a glass of water. Sipping a drink can help them focus.