Importance of Using VA, BH and SVC During the Sexual Assault Recovery Process

By Jeff Travers, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessDecember 21, 2023

After a sexual assault, feelings of disempowerment and disconnection are at the center of psychological trauma. Recovery depends on reestablishing empowerment and rebuilding relationships. During the recovery process, the survivor learns to trust again, to take initiative and to reestablish their identity. It is through reconnection and relationships that an individual can transition from being a victim to becoming a survivor.

One of the first opportunities a victim has to be empowered and establish connection after a sexual assault begins with their victim advocate. The victim advocate explains reporting, medical and legal options, which prioritize the victim’s ability to make decisions and increase their sense of control and access to resources. The advocate assists the individual in rebuilding trust by validating and stabilizing the victim through safety planning and managing their emotional reactions. Additionally, this professional sets clear expectations of services, maintains appropriate boundaries and keeps information confidential. The advocate also facilitates other support services, such as behavioral health care, medical care and legal assistance, which also decrease victims’ feelings of isolation.

Victims of sexual assault may experience distressing mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of shame and guilt. The trauma from the incident can last for an extended period. A therapist specializing in trauma can provide validation, support and coping skills to help the survivor navigate life. This relationship with the client helps them to reestablish trust and move toward autonomy.

A special victims counsel (SVC) can play a critical role in a sexual assault victim’s recovery. The SVC’s main goal is to provide legal representation and independent advice to individuals eligible for military legal assistance. They empower their clients by ensuring that they understand their rights and options in the military-justice process so that they can make informed decisions.

Although each of these resources plays a valuable role in a sexual assault victim’s recovery, these resources are being underused, based on the documentation of sexual assault response coordinators in the system of record. Fewer than half of eligible victims are working with a victim advocate or an SVC, and only 30 percent are seeking behavioral health services. The difficulty sexual assault victims have in asking for help is exacerbated in the military environment. When victims do not establish positive connections and coping skills, they often turn to unhealthy behaviors (substance abuse, self-harm, isolation, suicidal thoughts).

“Victims of sexual assault should never hesitate to reach out to the resources and support systems provided by the Army SHARP program and other agencies. Utilizing these resources is a brave and essential step toward healing and reclaiming their lives,” says Jill Londagin, director of the SHARP program. It is imperative, therefore, that all leaders encourage their subordinates to seek assistance when struggling with the aftermath of sexual violence and trauma so that they can transition from victim to survivor.