Someone you know has just shared his or her story of having been physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused. This could be the first time he or she has told anyone, or maybe it is just the first time it was shared with you. Either way, you are probably shocked, saddened, and at a loss as to how you can best respond. You want to help and support the victim, yet you probably realize there are limits to what you can do, especially if you are very close to the person. Consider using Psychological First Aid (PFA). Here are some steps you can take:
1. Make a connection – acknowledge that you heard what was shared, say you are sorry to hear what happened, and offer your support in any way you can.
2. Help people be safe – get victims medical attention (if needed); get them to a safe space (physically separated from the abuser); and report the abuse to authorities , e.g., child abuse reporting hotline.
3. Be kind, calm, and compassionate – since the victim shared this painful story with you, he/she is counting on you to offer support in this way.
4. Meet basic needs – when people have experienced extreme psychological trauma, they need very basic care, comfort, and support – things like hydration, comfort food, a safe place to live with stable daily routines, and someone there with them when they fear being alone.
5. Listen – once you have acknowledged that you heard what was shared and said you are sorry for what happened (Step #1), stop talking. There is nothing more you can say to ease the pain or speed the process of rebuilding a shattered life, but there are a lot of things you might accidentally say that may cause more emotional pain. Just listen and avoid any impulse to draw out details. People will share what they can, when they are ready.
6. Give realistic assurance – avoid making sweeping statements like “It will be okay”; most people survive trauma and become stronger over time, but it is a long, slow process. Better to take things a day at a time and say things that are short-term and easily achievable like “If you want to, we’ll get you connected to a good therapist and support group.”
7. Encourage good coping – people are incredibly resilient and, given time and support, most victims will become survivors. Family members, friends, and professional helpers simply need to be supportive, give them some space, and encourage them to use the same basic coping strategies that help us get through other life crises – eat and drink healthy foods, get needed rest, exercise, share things when needed (and avoid sharing when it doesn’t feel right), and accept that the process will take time.
8. Help people connect – listening to the nasty details of abuse victims is best handled by mental health professionals and by survivors of abuse who have reached the point in their own rebuilding process that they can now support others. As noted above, work to get the victim connected to others who specialize in working with this type of trauma.
9. Get and give accurate and timely information – be honest about things like the need to report the abuse, the steps in any resulting investigation and court procedures, the typical timeframes of rebuilding, and the predictable reactions to bumps along the road (e.g., associated sights, sounds and smells, anniversary reactions, and sensitivity to related media content).
10. Take care of yourself – emotional trauma is easily transferred from victims to helpers. Limit your exposure to gory details whenever you can. You can be very supportive without taking on more than you can emotionally handle. And, consider attending a support group and/or seeking professional help for yourself, if you find you are having trouble coping with all of this.
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