Local partners could provide needed clinical care

The recent accounts by students from Amherst College, Northwestern University, and Rice of how they were treated in the aftermath of sexual assaults have brought much-needed national attention to administrative and campus culture failures.

Clinical issues are another common thread in these accounts.

Not all victims of sexual assault suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, but many do. Sexual assault is the most common cause of PTSD among women. Of those victims who do develop negative trauma symptoms, some survivors will see their symptoms resolve on their own. Others will require professional help.

Not surprisingly, victims who receive less support in the aftermath of an assault are more likely to develop PTSD. That’s one of the reasons why the egregious statements and questions of school staff cited in theses accounts are so troubling to me. It’s not just the callousness and the wholesale purchase of victim-blaming culture, it is the real harm being done to students’ mental health.

This is an area where a school counseling center may be right in saying “We can’t help you.” The next sentence should be “We know who can”, not “Get off our campus because your symptoms are a liability for us.”

Local rape crisis centers have, by necessity, become experts in treating trauma. There are hundreds of such centers across the country, sometimes housed within domestic violence or social services agencies, many serving towns and cities with student populations. The one I managed in Charlottesville, Virginia has two therapists on staff who specialize in treating trauma symptoms. It is an independent community agency, but it receives a moderate sum of money every year from the University of Virginia in recognition of the fact that it serves many UVa students and staff. Its services are free and confidential.

That relationship is a model for clinical treatment that could be easily replicated by more campuses. Instead of providing no treatment, or inappropriate treatment, or less-than-confidential treatment, or kicking a victim out of school, partner with the local experts to provide services to assaulted students. Donate a lump sum every year to that center in recognition that it will likely serve many of your students and staff, even if you aren’t the one making the referral. Ask for non-identifying information about the students the center serves to add to your Clery numbers, making them that much more accurate. Pay for advanced training in trauma-treatment techniques, building the local capacity for serving all victims, child and adult, campus community member or not. Encourage students to ask for a trained center advocate to provide accompaniment during the disciplinary and/or criminal proceedings. Got a teaching hospital? Fund a forensic nurse program. Your students are going to meet that nurse in the middle of the night, with an advocate from the local crisis center by her side. You might as well take credit for funding it.

While a school may choose to create its own treatment program—and I know many schools prefer to create their own prevention programs too rather than adopt a perfectly acceptable prevention model developed on another campus–I encourage schools to build on the strengths already present in their communities. Schools must also recognize that many students will opt for the off-campus option anyway, because of valid concerns about confidentiality. Accepting that and supporting students means supporting local non-profit crisis centers.

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    About Peg

    Peg (Margaret Mikkelsen) is the former Executive Director of SAFER and the former director of a local sexual assault crisis center. She's been with SAFER since 2006 and is especially interested in how policy affects culture and vice versa.

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