This fall, #MeToo posts by celebrities, classmates, family members and colleagues helped to create an unprecedented visibility of the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Statistics have long shown the alarming scope of the problem. For example: every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, according to the Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey. But the #MeToo campaign seems to have raised consciousness in a new and more personal way.
“It’s easy to get frustrated and think, ‘Everyone’s always been aware of the number of victims of sexual assault.’ But that’s not true,” said Miriam Joelson, a first-year MSW student at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “The awareness this campaign has created is really remarkable. And now the conversation is turning to, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”
Joelson is founder and CEO of Project #HereForYou, a nonprofit launched in 2016, which aims to improve supports for survivors of sexual violence, on university campuses as well as in the workplace. Joelson, a survivor of rape, is committed to raising awareness of the psychological effects of sexual assault.
She and her collaborators are building coalitions with corporate management and human resources (HR) leaders to raise awareness for the needs of survivors. One priority is helping employees recognize they may have a legal right to reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as a quiet office space or an altered work schedule.
Institutional partners also help distribute stickers with the #HereForYou message, which allies can display on their laptops or in their offices to signal that they are willing and able to support survivors.
Project #HereForYou is now working with a California-based jewelry designer to launch a line of bracelets featuring the #HereForYou symbol, each handcrafted by women from residential homeless shelters. The proceeds will help fund Project #HereForYou’s work to improve the ways that corporations and campuses support survivors of sexual assault.
Each of these initiatives was motivated by Joelson’s experience as an employee at Google, where she worked in legal operations. In 2015, when she moved to the Bay Area to take the job, she experienced a surge in PTSD symptoms — nightmares, panic attacks and a growing sense of isolation.
“I had a really tough transition, and I didn’t have anyone to turn to. At a new workplace, in a community of strangers, you never know who you can confide in,” she said. “PTSD can be a life-long journey, and the trauma that comes from sexual assault can visit you and revisit you in the most inopportune moments.”
The logo of Project #HereForYou features a teal ribbon — which is used to raise awareness of sexual assault and sexual violence, as well as PTSD and dissociative disorders — woven into the shape of a hashtag. It’s a simple symbol, and Joelson hopes it will come to be widely recognized as a sign of support and openness, connecting survivors of sexual assault to caring allies.
“‘Here for You’ symbolizes not just something a survivor would want to say to another survivor, but something an ally — someone who has really committed to being a knowledgeable, safe person to turn to — can say and do, as well,” she said. “We want survivors to be seen, heard and supported.”
Joelson’s team has partnered with an organization called The Uncomfortable Conversation, which creates short videos that teach viewers about supportive, nonjudgmental listening techniques for talking with people who have been abused or assaulted.
Evidence shows that improving the support survivors receive can help improve their mental health outcomes. Among survivors, those who experience victim-blaming responses or an absence of support have a significantly increased likelihood of developing PTSD.
“Being believed and having emotional support, free of judgement and victim-blaming, is essential in recovery from sexual trauma,” said Associate Professor Tonya Edmond, the Brown School’s associate dean for diversity, inclusion and equity. Edmond focuses her research on testing the effectiveness of interventions for survivors of sexual violence.
“Although nearly all sexual assault survivors will have post-traumatic stress symptoms immediately after a sexual assault, about half will recover without the need for treatment if they are believed and receive good emotional support from family, friends and any institutions that they interact with after the assault,” Edmond said.
“Individuals often seek professional help because of the encouraging, supportive responses from those around them: listening, validating, and encouraging help-seeking,” added Ryan Lindsay, assistant dean for social work, who chairs the Brown School’s mental health concentration. “A program like Project #HereForYou has strong potential.”
Neither Edmond nor Lindsay were involved in the development of Project #HereForYou, and Lindsay cautions that a program like this must be designed carefully, in order to protect survivors from unintentional harm. Lindsay hopes that support from self-identified allies, such as caring colleagues or friends, can direct survivors toward a range of evidence-based interventions that are shown to help individuals heal from the effects of trauma.
Joelson was drawn to the Brown School to learn from high-caliber faculty members like Edmond and Ryan, who are dedicated to evidence-based clinical practice. She is pursuing the mental health concentration in preparation for a career as a licensed clinical social worker, in addition to her commitment to advocacy.
“As an aspiring clinician, I want to focus on treating individuals dealing with the psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and intimate partner violence,” Joelson said, “as well as promoting equity by creating trauma-informed environments in education and the workplace.”
“The mental health concentration is made for someone like me, someone who wants to get immersed in what works in treating trauma and PTSD,” she added. “That’s really how I knew I came to the right place.”