From Hollywood executives and actors to politicians to members of the media, high-profile stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault have continually made national headlines in recent months. The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the pervasive nature of such abuse, igniting conversations and challenging previously held perceptions.
Statistics bear out the degree to which sexual assault and sexual harassment have plagued American culture, particularly in the workplace. According to an ABC News/Washington Post survey released in October:
- 54% of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances;
- 30% say they have had such experiences in the workplace; and
- 23% say they have experienced an unwanted sexual advance from someone who had influence over their work situation.
If the #MeToo movement has a lasting impact—and the continued proliferation of cases coming to light seems to indicate that is a real possibility—mental health treatment professionals will play a key role in answering one critical question as more victims feel empowered to open up: What now?
“I don’t know if anything has been put out there well in terms of solutions,” says Jamie Marich, PhD, a trauma therapy specialist based in Ohio, who is also a contributing writer for Addiction Professional.
The lack of solutions is what concerns Marich the most.
“It’s great the conversation is happening, and I don’t think it’s going away,” she continues. “But the next logical place the conversation has to shift to is what we do about it now. It’s similar to recovery: Once you know you have a problem, what are you going to do about it?”
Marich and other clinicians contacted by Addiction Professional shared some key points for treatment professionals to keep in mind moving forward.
Stories in the news can often trigger trauma response for others who have shared similar experiences—although not always—notes Stephanie S. Covington, PhD, co-director of both the Institute for Relational Development and the Center for Gender and Justice. Managing such triggers is a critical component of treatment.
“For a trauma survivor, triggers are everywhere, and they don’t know when and where they may happen,” Covington says. “That’s why one of the primary things we do when we work with survivors is help them have grounding techniques and skills they can use when they are triggered. They understand what a trigger is, they can identify it, and they can do something about how to manage their emotions.”
When patients are willing to open up, clinicians need to be able to validate their stories as “legitimate grist for the clinical mill,” Marich says.
“I really hate it when clinicians or people in recovery say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not going on in their real life. They’re just being a bunch of babies,’ ” Marich says. “A solid clinician needs to be able to work with what’s happening in current events and understand how it’s impacting clients.”
Julie Hergenrather, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s issues at Geisinger in Pennsylvania, says the #MeToo movement isn’t only empowering victims to speak out, it is also opening the door for issues previously discussed between patients and therapists to be re-examined.
“These are experiences they might have heard about from their clients in the past, but not necessarily labeled them as such,” Hergenrather says. “Perhaps both patients and clinicians will view past harassment experiences as more important and more impactful than previously since there seems to be a growing acceptance that sexual harassment happens frequently, and it actually is problematic, upsetting and even life-altering for the victim.”
According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, just 42% of women who say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace have reported it to a supervisor. And this occurs despite the fact that 83% say they’re angry about the experience, 64% say it made them feel intimidated and 52% say they were humiliated.
Marich says many victims choose to stay quiet for years out of fear of being chastised, ridiculed or simply not believed.
“One of the dumbest things I’ve heard from some male politicians through all of this was, ‘Now, everybody is coming out of the woodwork,’ ” Marich says. “Well, there’s a very good reason for that. When any kind of survivor is empowered to believe they’re not alone, you see more people coming forward.”
Facilitating productive dialogue
When working with victims of sexual abuse, Covington says it is beneficial for clinicians to explore a patient’s history, but to still understand that patients might not open up completely, either leaving out parts of their experience intentionally or just not remembering. She adds that it’s critical to recognize that similar experiences can have different effects on different patients.
“Trauma impacts different people differently, and we have to be open to that range and not have tunnel vision about it,” Covington says.
Group therapy environments can bring their own challenges. Marich says she has observed group settings where those who speak up about inappropriate behavior have been made to feel uncomfortable.
“Part of the cultural change has to be about us calling each other out when we see behaviors that are victimizing,” she says. “I think now there’s an attitude going forward where hopefully this won’t be tolerated anymore. We shall see.”