How to Cope When Sexual Assault Cases Make Headlines

How to cope when sexual assault cases make headlines

With two high-profile and horrific rape claims dominating news bulletins, we ask a psychologist for their advice on dealing with the triggering news cycle – and channelling your rage.
sexual assault

It feels like I’ve been holding my breath for two weeks. My shoulders are permanently tense, and my jaw is painfully clenched.

Since Brittany Higgins’ rape claim at Parliament House made headlines last month, I’ve been hyper aware of every #BreakingNews hashtag, glued to my phone, watching every painful press conference, stuck in an endless Twitter scroll.  

When a second woman – and third and fourth – came forward with further allegations against the accused Liberal staffer, the headlines hit like sucker punches.

Except they weren’t sucker punches because I instinctively knew they were coming. When Higgins so courageously shared her story three weeks ago, she shattered the cone of silence surrounding Australia’s sexual assault crisis. And let’s be clear, this is a crisis, one that runs deeper than the cases currently in the news.

The saddest part of the Higgins case, and the Cabinet Minister rape allegation that emerged over the weekend, is that I’m not shocked by them.

According to Our Watch, one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. According to every woman I know or have had drunken DNMs with, that number is a lot higher.

Walking down the street, I notice the tense shoulders and clenched jaws of the women passing me.  

When news stories about sexual assault break, they can shake us in unexpected ways. For survivors – and their friends, relatives and supporters – the rolling coverage of the past three weeks may have been overwhelming, exhausting and rage-inducing.

Clinical psychologist Mary Gregory says that discussions around sexual assault often mark a rise in requests for help. “Anytime there’s a rape reported in the media, there’s an increase in people experiencing post traumatic stress symptoms,” explains Gregory.

The fallout is different for everyone, but can include feelings of anger, anxiety, self-blame, guilt, exhaustion and numbness. Then there’s the flashbacks, trouble sleeping, self-harm and substance abuse.

“When survivors hear these stories, it can be re-traumatising and bring back their experience,” says Gregory. “For others, it can also reconceptualise an experience they had. A lot of women and men believe that if you didn’t say ‘no’, it wasn’t rape. And now they’re starting to look back on experiences in a new light and understanding what happened to them wasn’t right.”

Moreover, the lazy and ignorant tropes that often follow rape allegations (you know the ones: “He said, she said,” “Boys will be boys,” “Not all men”) can be harmful. “Comments about the victim’s state or clothing are invalidating for people who’ve experienced sexual assault, and that invalidation can really affect people,” adds Gregory.

But short of smashing the TV, deleting all your apps and going off-grid for the rest of time, how can survivors try to cope with the triggering nature of the news cycle?

Seek support

Gregory says the first step – and sometimes the hardest – is to ask for help. “If you’re struggling, seek support from family, friends, a sexual assault counsellor or psychologist,” she advises. “If you’re experiencing mental health symptoms, you can get a mental health care plan for up to 20 sessions through Medicare, and that’s a really important thing to do.”

Health professionals who work in sexual assault support are well-versed in helping people through what is – unfortunately – a quite common experience.

Write it down

The majority of sexual assault cases in Australia go unreported because victims are – understandably – hesitant to go to the police. It’s estimated that between nine and 14 per cent of sexual assaults are reported, and of those cases, very few result in a conviction.

For those unable or unwilling to make a police report, Gregory says writing about the experience can be affirming. “When you see headlines about sexual assault, it can make you question your own experiences. So sometimes having a written outline of the things you remember can be helpful. Even if you put it in a drawer out of sight, it’s important to know your truth,” she says.

Limit exposure

It’s unrealistic to tell people to simply log off Twitter, stop watching the news on TV and close their eyes when approaching a news agency to avoid being triggered. In fact, survivors often become attuned to stimuli that’s a reminder of their trauma, making it near impossible to tune out.

Considering this, Gregory says minimising – rather than eliminating – news consumption can help. “The best way to deal with the news coverage is to schedule fun activities and check in with friends and family, so you’re not on your phone all the time,” she explains.

Take care

It’s a common-sense cliché, but taking care of yourself and living a healthy lifestyle does build mental stamina, says Gregory: “Eating healthy, exercising, taking time with friends and having hobbies are good for your mental health at all time, but particularly if you’re feeling vulnerable.”

Have hope

As confronting as these stories are for all of us, they are unfortunately necessary for real change.

The only way we’re going to deal with our country’s sexual assault crisis is to have these difficult conversations. We need to listen to survivors, believe them, support them and hold perpetrators accountable. 

“This is an amazing chance for change,” says Gregory, noting that rape in marriage only became a criminal offence in the English-speaking world for the first time in 1976.

“I hope these headlines start conversations about consent, power dynamics and how common the freeze response is. No-one ever asks a king-hit victim if they explicitly told their perpetrator not to punch them. Hopefully the next generation won’t have to deal with the victim-blaming rhetoric of sexual assault.”

There is power in knowing your truth, raising your voice and collectively channelling our rage to demand better.

If you’re reading this, take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and unclench your jaw. We riot at dawn.

If you or someone you know needs help or advice, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. If you need help immediately, please call 000.

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