With the modern reckoning on sexual assault one year underway, Moneyish talked to trauma psychologists and therapists about its impact on mental health.
One year in, mental health professionals say #MeToo has yielded a mixed bag for sexual assault survivors and women overall.
The global reckoning on sexual harassment and assault — and its accompanying discussions of boundaries and consent — have prompted many people to re-evaluate past sexual interactions in a new light. Thirty-seven percent of women and 7% of men surveyed by Women’s Health and Men’s Health/SurveyMonkey, for example, said they now consider a past sexual encounter to be inappropriate in the wake of #MeToo. And for 83% of women, thinking about a previous encounter that “crossed the line” brought on feelings of anxiety, depression or regret.
“Overall, the women that I’m speaking to are happy that (#MeToo is) happening, and they feel like it’s been a long time in coming,” licensed psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser told Moneyish. But the movement has also dredged up traumatic memories for some, she said, and prompted others to question past experiences they may have considered OK at the time — for example, “experiences of men grabbing them, men repeatedly saying inappropriate things to them, being pushed into sexual activity when they’ve said no and conceding because of the pressure.”
“People are definitely rethinking situations that maybe were not so clear,” licensed clinical psychologist Lisa Herman, founder of the online mental-health therapy services site Synergy eTherapy, told Moneyish. “People get very muddled when there’s a power differential, especially — I think people are trying to understand, ‘Was this me, too? Have I experienced it? Have I seen it? Was I a witness to it? Was I personally involved in it?’”
Therapists and trauma psychologists who spoke with Moneyish say they haven’t necessarily seen an influx of new or existing patients who’d had such revelations in light of #MeToo. Steven Gold, a professor of psychology and director of Nova Southeastern University’s Trauma Resolution Integration Program, suggested there may be some lag in between that realization and actually seeking out mental health services. It takes time to come to terms with the realization, he said, and “therapy is a last resort” for many people.
“I think it’s very, very, very rare for someone to recognize they have a problem and immediately seek out a therapist,” Gold said. “It’s usually only after making attempts at other avenues, sometimes over quite a period of time, before they make the decision to enter therapy.”
Plus, clinical social worker Marianne Silva said, therapy and mental health in general are “still in many ways stigmatized.” “Talking about trauma, especially sexual assault … is therapeutic and, if done in the right way, can be very healing,” she added. “But it can be very hard to know who or where to go to talk about it in the right way.”
Meanwhile, survivors of sexual assault can feel excited about the movement’s momentum, its capacity to destigmatize the issue and its role in helping people feel safe coming forward, Silva said. But they must also navigate a world in which stories of sexual misconduct or assault frequently dominate the news cycle and provide emotional triggers. “It can increase feeling more on edge,” Silva said, “because this constant stream of reminders that they’re facing can make it impossible to take a break in that sense.”
Clinical and forensic psychologist Dawn Hughes called the wall-to-wall media coverage “an added stressor.” “If they’re trying to tame the intrusive, involuntary, distressing memories and now it’s all over the news, it becomes very hard to exercise that containment,” she said.
“The #MeToo movement has been very helpful to them in terms of the validation; giving them enough courage to go talk to someone about it,” Gold agreed. “The other side of the coin … is that a lot of the doubt and hostility that they’re seeing people who go public being confronted with can discourage them from seeking help or opening up to somebody else.” He described feelings of “despair and rage” among survivors regarding expressions of disbelief over Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “That’s incredibly invalidating and hurtful to people who’ve been through this,” Gold said.
In fact, an unprecedented number of people sought help after Ford’s public Senate testimony Thursday, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): The organization this week reported a 338% increase in hotline traffic between Thursday and Sunday, and said Friday was the busiest day in the National Sexual Assault Hotline’s 24-year history, with more than 3,000 calls. A wave of survivors also called in to C-SPAN during the hearing to share their own stories of sexual assault.
“History shows us that when high-profile allegations such as these are in the news it often causes others to reach out too,” RAINN president Scott Berkowitz said in a statement. “This story has clearly resonated with survivors, and has led thousands to reach out for help for the first time.”
For people grappling with negative feelings over a past experience that crossed the line, Silva advised “talking to someone you trust, talking to a good therapist, (and) really exploring those beliefs and being able to start putting blame where it belongs” — not on the victim of the abuse, that is, but on the perpetrator and the systems that allowed it to happen. Limiting media exposure in favor of healthy, productive activities can also help: “It’s OK to turn off your notifications and check out of social media for a few days,” she said.
And if reckonings over the past year have caused you to feel shame, guilt or anger over something that happened to you or a loved one, Hughes stressed the importance of recognizing that the shame doesn’t belong to you. “Maybe because people feel shame, they don’t talk about it and they don’t tell someone,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be going to the New York Times or New York magazine. It can be talking to a trusted confidante; someone you know will hear you and believe you.”
Survivors of sexual trauma may also benefit from evidence-based treatments like cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure therapy, two types of cognitive behavioral therapy recommended for treating PTSD, NYU Langone Health clinical psychologist David Austern told Moneyish.
The #MeToo media coverage may also give some survivors hope and help get them into therapy, Hughes suggested. “If they have an opportunity because of this to see that help is available, and they don’t have to suffer alone and in silence, and that their stories will be heard and believed no matter how unbelievable it sounds,” she said, “then I think that is a positive.”
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