Today is World Mental Health Day!
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Day is “Psychological First Aid.”
According to the World Health Organization, “Learning the basic principles of psychological first aid will help you to provide support to people who are very distressed, and, importantly, to know what not to say.”
What NOT to say? Well, if you saw the debates last night, you might have an idea of certain things that you shouldn’t say, but let me spell it out…
Read the rest of the post at
in an article I wrote for Huffington Post:
Healing Through Our Voices: What to Say (and Not Say) to a Survivor of Sexual Assault
Everyone has a place in sexual assault prevention. According to RAINN, an average of 68% of assaults in the last five years were not reported. Together, we can help all survivors come forward to share their story and heal.
The Stifling Problem
Sexual assault is a serious problem in our society, and one of the most important things we can do is know how to best support a survivor.
You can be an active part of lowering this statistic by knowing what to say to someone who has been assaulted.
Why is it hard for survivors to report an assault?
First, it’s best to understand why sexual assault is so infrequently reported. As asurvivor myself, I experienced each of these barriers:
- We don’t know how to speak it.
Survivors of sexual assault might not have the words or vocabulary to report that they’ve been violated. It took me years before I could even begin to articulate the turmoil that was rattling inside of me. It was terrifying for me to actually verbalize the fact that had been betrayed by someone I really trusted.
- We don’t know who to tell.
It can be very difficult to find someone we feel comfortable enough sharing this with, especially if we haven’t fully processed it for ourselves.
- We’re scared we won’t be believed.
We fear that when we finally do work up the courage to tell someone, we wont be taken seriously.
The Dangers of Not Speaking
Holding this secret in can slowly shift to victim blaming. We think, “If I hadn’t been there, or worn this outfit, or been with this person had done [insert here], I wouldn’t have been assaulted.”
Yet, in reality, the only person that can actually prevent the rape is the rapist themselves. But for most of us, it’s easier or us to got through that mental checklist of things we “could have” prevented, because we can rationalize, “If I hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have spoken to this person.” It’s how we try to come to terms with what happened. What results is a damaging self-blame that we don’t deserve.
If a survivor of sexual assault is already saying these things to themselves, imagine how hard it is for them to actually speak out. When we keep this in, it turns to shame.
The shame survivors feel is a tremendous barrier to reporting.
How can you help someone overcome their barriers to reporting?
Create a safe place for that reporting to happen, with an open heart. It took years for me to feel comfortable sharing my own story, but knowing how imperative this was for my own healing process inspires me to help others do the same.
At a very vulnerable time, learn how to best support a survivor:
What to say to someone who tells you they have been assaulted:
- I believe you.
- You are safe.
- I’m sorry this happened to you.
- I’m so glad you are telling me this.
- This is not your fault.
- Whatever reaction you are having is normal. You are not going crazy.
- Things will never be the same, but things will be better. (Be compassionately realistic. When these acts happen, they become part of us, and how we heal depends on the support systems we have.)
- I am here to support you through this.
Just as important is knowing what not to say:
- Why or how could someone do this to you?
Then they’ll start to wonder what they could have done to “make that happen.”
- I understand.
Even if you empathize, or are a survivor yourself, respect that you will never now what it is actually like for the survivor and their own individual experience.
- It could have been worse. You’re lucky that something more awful didn’t happen.
- If you hadn’t been ____, maybe this would not have happened.
- It’s not your fault, but, maybe you shouldn’t have___.
- You’re going to be fine.
It’s not fine right now. People need to feel the pain and difficulty of their experience. It will get better, but they need to find safe ways to be whatever they are feeling right now.
- Try not to get so worked up.
A survivor has every right and reason to feel what they are feeling right now. Let them know that.
Helping Break the Silence
Most importantly, listen to the survivor. Let them say however little or much as they need to. Follow up with them if you can. And know that you have have made a tremendous impact on someone’s recovery.
Knowing What to Say…and Sing…
I’m touring my one-woman musical, Gutless & Grateful as part of my sexual assault prevention program, and here’s a bit of the talkback I give on what it was like healing from sexual assault once I could finally eat for the first time in years after surgery – I explain the full story in my TEDx Talk, if you’re not a regular here 🙂
Performing my show is my own way of practicing psychological first aid for World Mental Health Day.
How Do You Find Your Own Psychological First Aid?
Psychological First Aid reminds me of one of my favorite TEDx Talks by a British guy named Guy Winch. It’s called, “How to practical emotional first aid.”
This is my favorite quote from his talk:
“By taking action when you’re lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won’t just heal your psychological wounds, you will build emotional resilience, you will thrive. A hundred years ago, people began practicing personal hygiene, and life expectancy rates rose by over 50 percent in just a matter of decades. I believe our quality of life could rise just as dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone was psychologically healthier? If there were less loneliness and less depression? If people knew how to overcome failure? If they felt better about themselves and more empowered? If they were happier and more fulfilled? I can, because that’s the world I want to live in, and that’s the world my brother wants to live in as well. And if you just become informed and change a few simple habits, well, that’s the world we can all live in.”
And I’m a firm believer in that. For example..
“Despite its name, psychological first aid covers both psychological and social support. Just like general health care never consists of physical first aid alone, similarly no mental health care system should consist of psychological first aid alone. Indeed, the investment in psychological first aid is part of a longer-term effort to ensure that anyone in acute distress due to a crisis is able to receive basic support.”
Basic Support – don’t we all need that in order to live our best lives?
Psychological First Aid Means Healing in Community
For years, the energy created by shame, anger, hurt and confusion was locked up in my throat. It took years to be able to speak my truth aloud. But once I did, I could ask for help and find support. Then, I was finally able to heal.
When we ask for help, we have a chance to share our stories. Through telling stories, we restructure and create our lives. We can find control where there is none. We can speak emotions that we’ve sensed intuitively, but cannot bring to light without the power of words.
Psychological First Aid Means Fighting in the Open
Fighting in the Open is also the catchphrase for Mental Health America – the country’s leading nonprofit dedicated to helping ALL people live mentally healthier lives.
Clifford Beers, who established MHA in 1909, said “I must fight in the open” to respond to those critics who suggested he start his consumer movement anonymously. Over 100 years later, his legacy still guides the way as MHA strives to eliminate the stigma related to mental health, provide the advocacy to ensure the rights of people with mental conditions are protected, and needed services are available to everyone.
So why do you fight?
I fight to tell my story. What good is it to keep things in? This year, I was thrilled to present my one-woman musical, Gutless & Grateful, at MHA’s 2016 Annual Conference: Media, Messaging and Mental Health.
This year, the conference took an in-depth look at the impact and influence ofmedia and the entertainment industry on the complex issues of mental health and mental illness.
Four Skills to “Fight in the Open”
I got to share my four hardcore resiliency skills that are what makes up my psychological first aid toolkit.