I am tearful listening to and watching Scandal portray trauma and victims of trauma as weak and vulnerable and easily manipulated. Trauma can cripple but trauma exposure can also make us stronger. Not everyone has to stay a “victim.” Not every survivor is a wounded, weak, easily manipulated person changed by time and experience. There is so much research that trauma changes our brains and our ability to function but doesn’t always make us weak and easily manipulated. Trauma is an event that challenges our spirit and our definition of ourselves. It shapes our minds and shifts our core. But it can also make us compassionate, intuitive, and deeply passionate. Our minds can be sharp and strong. Empower survivors. Encourage survivors, uplift them for they have faced what so many cannot fathom. Not to be distorted by media or manipulated for entertainment but celebrated in life and and the thriving that can come from surviving.
For those of you that know me, I am truly passionate about trauma therapy. My specialty is my work with sexual assault survivors and combat veterans. I am watching the Academy Awards and am particularly moved by Lady Gaga’s performance of “Till It Happens To You” from the movie “The Hunting Ground.” I am moved to blog for several reasons. Number 1: Why haven’t I heard of this movie until now?! I can’t wait to see it and I WILL seek it out. It’s such an important subject and must be placed in the hands of mainstream entertainment so the topic can be discussed as a mainstream topic. I looked up some statistics to make it more evident why the issue of sexual assault IS a mainstream issue.
According to RAINN ((Rape, Incest, Abuse, National, Network)
- Every 107 seconds, another sexual assault occurs
- There is an average of 293,000 instances (victims age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year
- 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police
- 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail
- About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33— have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. From 1995-2010, 9% of rape and sexual assault victims were male. 78 million men in the U.S. have been victims of sexual assault or rape.
- 1 out of every 6 American womenhas been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization, 2010,National Crime Victimization Survey:
- In 2010 there were 188,380 reports of rape and/or sexual assault in the United States.
- More than half of rape and sexual assault crimes take place between 6pm and 6am.
- Females are more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault (182,000) than males (40,000).
- Most victims of rape or sexual assault are females younger than 24 years of age.
- Most rapes committed against women are committed by an intimate partner (spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend) or someone else they know (friend, family member, acquaintance).
These numbers are focused on the American population. But sexual assault is blind of nationality, race, and gender (although it was long believed only women were sexually assaulted). What this means is we all need to be aware that it is happening and unfortunately continues to happen. Also, it is crucial that we understand, sexual assault happens MOST often in familiar environments. According to the above statistics most assailants are KNOWN by their victims. This leads me to another reason why I need to blog. Number 2: It is a great time to educate what is sexual assault? And what do we need to know about it? Here are 2 definitions I like the most:
According to the US Dept. of Justice: Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition ofsexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
According to RAINN: Sexual assault is a crime of power and control. The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.
My Definition: Sexual Assault is a crime of power in which the victim is violated by any type of sexual behavior without his or her explicit consent.
I can go further in my definition, leading me to reason number 3 of why to comment now: The violation can lead to arrested development, altering the ability to establish and maintain healthy and adaptive relationships, and can KILL a survivor slowly over time. With that definition it is pertinent to understand the role of social education and why a film such as “The Hunting Ground” and having a power house such as Lady Gaga perform “Till It Happens To You,” is important for mainstream society. It will hopefully open communication about how to protect ourselves from becoming a statistic but also offer support to survivors. In my experience as a clinician the second tier traumatizing that survivors experiencing in lack of support for survivors is a major factor in not helping victims. Making sexual assault a mainstream issue will hopefully help end victim blaming and ostracizing. Sexual assault treatment is imperative in helping victims work through the traumas they have survived and go from “surviving” to “thriving” in their personal lives. With support and validation and competent treatment sexual assault victims can become survivors and with this film and song we will talk about it for what it is: A real crime occurring every 1minute 47seconds in America that needs to STOP and give meaning to the word “NO.” Where victimize stop being further victimized by being blamed and have their crime minimized and overlooked.
Sometimes fear keeps us safe and sometimes fear holds us back
Scandal’s lead character, Olivia Pope, uttered these words in the recent episode of the TV series and I could not agree more.
Watching the episode, you can’t help but acknowledge post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a truly crippling disorder. Jake referenced it concerning Huck, “…say, you are a soldier with PTSD that went AWOL.” Ironically, Huck is a soldier with PTSD whose mind disassociates and goes “AWOL” when he is overwhelmed. Because of his PTSD, Huck is empathetic to Olivia’s struggle with trauma recover, “she came in. That’s something.”
Throughout this episode and last, we see her body tremors. This is our bodies’ “flight or fight” fear response. Oftentimes, it is a physical symptom of anxiety as the nervous system is over stimulated. We witness her flashbacks and see her isolation. Abby relays her concern over her hyper-vigilence as evidenced by her carrying a gun around her apartment.
I point all of this out becuase:
- the writing of this is phenomenal in documenting PTSD;
- people need to see and recognize the symptoms of various mental illnesses;
- it has not yet touched on the reason why she doesn’t seek treatment, but I will speculate about what it will be; and
- this is a setup to what she needs to do for herself and what others can do for someone facing similar situations.
Regard the third point, there is a stigma around being strong and not “succumbing” to mental illness. Olivia describes herself (and those around her) as a #gladiator. Gladiators DID NOT have PTSD. Gladiators were strong, virile, and not afraid. WRONG! I suspect many did have PTSD and this may be why they stayed in battle. Soldiers with PTSD will tell you the only place they feel “normal” is in battle around other soldiers, maybe because normal is relative to our surroundings. Also, gladiators often drank excessively upon their return. After the “party” ended, I believe they consumed in excess to “numb out” and avoid their own emotions (much like Olivia and her white wine this week).
In order for there to be true success in the field of mental illness and PTSD, barriers must be broken down and the stigmas associated with them removed. A truly strong person knows when they have reached a point when they need help. Like I tell some patients, even the strongest body builders use a “spotter”.
Shonda Rhimes may also be leading into a discussion of how mental illness often is frowned upon in communities of color. #Scandal may be pointing out that communities of color historically have had a negative view of mental illness and, in many cases, denied its existence.
So, if we acknowledge it, then what. Follow these steps until someone wants to seek professional help.
- Celebrate their small steps and triumphs. Let them know you notice and acknowledge the pain that may be present.
- Try to help them identify “the something good” they need right now.
- Listen to them talk. When they share, much as Huck did at the end, LISTEN. Let their story come out of “the hole.”
- And most of all, be patient! And know things will never be the same, but they can find a new “normal.”
So, “Nigeria’s military says it has agreed a ceasefire with Islamist militants Boko Haram – and that the schoolgirls the group has abducted will be released.”
Initial response: This is wonderful.
Then, I think oh the traumas these girls have endured. I pray and hope the government and other agencies will be willing to provide various therapies for these young ladies.
What we know about PTSD:
When the trauma is shared there is a possibility that the symptoms of PTSD may be less intense or severe. Trauma often leaves individuals feeling alone, scared, and single out as targets making them feel unsafe in the world around them. When a trauma is shared the nature of the group experience, not being isolated or singled out, it can be healing. There is research done(which i can’t put my finger on) of the impact of “long boat ride home” for WWII vets vs the transcontinental flights alone that Vietnam veterans experienced and the relationship with PTSD symptoms. The former seemingly to have fared better than the latter partly due to this group shared experience.
There is also the fact that support can aid in the healing process. Research (can’t put my finger on that either) shows that when a trauma survivor is blamed, ostracized, and condemned for their trauma they tend to have a more severe symptoms pattern (e.g
Vietnam vets vs WWII and their acceptance upon returning to the US). These girls have been embraced by different races and cultures. Their return has been begged for by different countries and people they have never met. This too may be in their favor.
It is also known that the earlier in life someone experiences trauma and the longer they endure active engagement in the trauma the more detrimental the effects are on their adjustment, coping, and personality development. These young girls are in formidable stages of their development. Children can be resilient, but early intervention is key.
Also, in war and POW situations, enduring injuries also increases the impact of the trauma and exacerbates symptoms. Injuries in this situation may also be sexual and will need be addressed delicately with a population in which women’s sexuality is not discussed.
What I know is that early intervention and wrap around services and support must be in place in order to capitalize on those things in their favor and get them the help they need so they can adjust and prayerfully thrive despite the traumas they have survived.
Having gotten a significant portion of my training in the treatment of trauma-related mental illness, I have an interest in the effects of natural disaster on mental wellness. This being hurricane season raises particular interest to me as my first exposure to natural disaster treatment was Hurricane Katrina. I am watching the coverage of the “Perfect Storm” hitting the east coast. Watching the news feeds and internet has encouraged me to give some tips to self-care.
For those in the storm…please follow safety recommendations first and foremost. A significant factor in contributing to post-traumatic stress disorder is the actuality and perception a person has of feeling safe in their environments. Also, do not isolate yourself from others sharing this traumatic experience. In natural disasters and combat, a healing factor is the shared experience of the trauma and ability to discuss its impact with others. After the storm passes, surround yourself with supportive individuals that empathize with your trauma and can provide emotional support.
For those watching…Please turn the channel from time to time. Watching the tragedy of others puts us in a vulnerable position and, if we do not occasionally distance ourselves, we will start to personalize and internalize the trauma of others. Also, reach out and offer aid however you can. Being active in the healing of others is quite therapeutic.
After every natural disaster, the true outcome is measured in the following weeks. These are self-care suggestions. I hope they help.