Conquering the Mental Trauma of Sexual Assault

By Kim FerraroApril 26, 2023

In the Army, showing resilience and moving forward no matter what the situation are gold standards of behavior. But for a service member who is sexually assaulted, as happens to thousands each year, those standards may no longer be achievable. After suffering one of the most anguishing bodily violations, some victims slide into crippling depression and thoughts of suicide. That’s why the Suicide Prevention Program (SP2) is a vitally important resource.

Andrea Allen, manager of the Suicide Prevention and Army Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) programs at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, says that SP2 seeks to be proactive by focusing on training Soldiers, commanders and Families of service members on how to recognize the signs that someone is in suicidal crisis and what to do, as well as making them aware of the stigma around mental health issues and sexual assault that often prevents people from seeking assistance. Participants learn in interactive sessions where they role-play, acting as the person who is in crisis or the concerned individual who attempts to help. When a sexual assault victim comes on their own to SP2, the staff gauge whether they are in imminent danger of self-harm and need emergency treatment or are stable enough to refer to the SHARP program or a counseling organization such as the Military Rape Crisis Center.

Because sexual assault victims often feel ashamed of what happened and even consider themselves to blame, they feel alone and avoid seeking help, says Donna Peters, a licensed clinical psychologist in Denver who treats those who have suffered sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s no surprise that, according to Peters, research shows that more than a third of women who have been raped consider suicide and 13 percent of assault victims attempt to kill themselves. But access to a tight network of family, friends and colleagues “is a major factor in reducing suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts by victims of assault, as it reduces the sense of isolation many victims feel,” Peters says. She also points to the effectiveness of traumafocused cognitive behavioral therapy.

One barrier to recovery, says Tamara Rumburg, a licensed clinical psychologist at Thrive Psychology in Los Angeles who has seen veterans, is that “service members who have been assaulted sometimes perceive themselves as weak or fear others will perceive them this way and/or treat them differently, because of the assault itself or if they are struggling with mental health symptoms as a result of it.”

The biggest challenge to helping sexual assault victims, Allen says from her experiences as a certified employee assistance professional, is rebuilding their trust after they have been violated so personally. “Trust is key in building a rapport and for them to heed your advice and work with anyone while seeking assistance.” To gain their confidence, Allen says, it is important to show compassion— through both words and body language—and listen attentively, without interrupting or pushing them to reveal too much too soon. “Sometimes they tell the whole story from beginning to end, or sometimes they may take days and tell bits of it at a time. This can be because they are still processing it, having flashbacks due to a trigger, or gauging your response, both verbal and nonverbal.” People in the victim’s life need to be patient, she stresses. “Let the person make the decisions, and just walk at their speed through this process. It is the first step in the survivor taking back the power they feel they have lost.”