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Carruth Center creating safe space

West Virginia University’s Carruth Center “strives to create a safe, diverse and inclusive environment, as well as a confidential space where students may seek support and process their reactions.” 

The efforts of the Carruth Center are extended to sexual assault survivors in need of assistance on their path to trauma management and healing.

WVU Carruth Center Director Dr. T. Anne Hawkins said Carruth Center counselors are well-versed on assisting sexual assault survivors. Counselors can provide trauma-informed care at the center, which is a necessary foundation to healing from sexual assault.

Some clinicians at the center have a dedicated focus or specialization in providing services for survivors and the center refers survivors, once identified, to those clinicians.

Carruth Center counselors also know when to refer survivors to medical help, Hawkins said.

According to Hawkins, the Carruth Center does offer some programs designed specifically for sexual assault survivors.

“We offer a supportive group for sexual assault survivors, as well as workshops on healthy sexuality and connection each semester. Carruth also makes sure counselors are available during campus events connected to survivors and sexual assault should students need support or connection to services,” she said.

Hawkins said the healing process looks different for each survivor and  each survivor is on their own timeline in the process — there isn’t a single “right” way to heal from sexual assault.

She said  challenges faced by sexual assault survivors include: 

  • Understanding  their distress and symptoms are “normal” responses to the trauma of sexual assault.
  • Learning how to trust themselves and others in safe ways.
  • Gaining back their power and setting boundaries.
  • Intersectional issues — was the assault and its aftermath affected by racial or cultural issues? How do cultural issues complicate the healing process for the survivor? 
  • Learning to love their bodies and experience desire again.
  • The issues around telling others about their assault and related family issues and dynamics that might be further complicated by knowledge about the assault.

Hawkins said trauma from sexual assault affects individuals differently than other types of trauma on a number of  levels.

“While sexual assault is more about power than sexual desire, it’s important to remember that it concerns the most private and intimate parts of our bodies and connections with others. Because of that, sexual assault potentiates shame in the core of one’s being in a way that can be very difficult to mitigate,” she said.

Self-hatred, disgust and an inability to experience sexual desire or intimacy are effects associated particularly with the trauma of sexual assault, Hawkins said.

She said it’s also noteworthy that there are gendered politics around sexual assault that have real effects on survivors, especially when they are not believed or are blamed and castigated for their assault. These effects have great potential to re-traumatize survivors.

The steps  Carruth Center counselors take to promote recovery and healing in  survivors can be different for every survivor. Counselors start by assessing the symptoms or trauma responses survivors are experiencing as well as any other mental health conditions they might have. Counselors work to understand how long ago the assault or assaults took place and where the survivor currently is in their healing process.

“Most therapy with survivors is focused on giving power back to the student, following the student’s lead and responding to what their needs are in the moment,” Hawkins said.

Clinicians also provide psychoeducation about typical challenges survivors face, how to set boundaries with others and ask for their needs and how to become more aware of their own nervous system activation so that they can take the necessary steps to make themselves feel safe.

Hawkins said clinicians and counselors also work to advocate for students.

Counselors and clinicians at the Carruth Center are not required to report sexual assault because it is critical that survivors have a safe, trusted space where they can go to get mental health care.

“While counselors do not report sexual assault incidents, they are expected to assess risk, offer supportive listening and explain what to expect in the healing process, connect a survivor to any additional medical help and provide information about their options are for reporting – or not reporting – the incident depending on the survivor’s wishes,” Hawkins said.

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