Shannen Deptula, Graduate Intern at The College of New Jersey and Candidate for a Master of Science in Student Affairs and College Counseling at Monmouth University.
Jordan Draper, EdD, Interim Dean of Students & Title IX Coordinator at The College of New Jersey, EVAWI, Associate Board Member.
Elizabeth Gallus, Director of Student Conduct & Dispute Resolution Services and Deputy Title IX Coordinator at The College of New Jersey, EVAWI, Advisory Board Member.
This blog post is a joint effort by the three listed authors. One of the authors shares some of her personal experiences surrounding the death of a loved one by suicide. In the post, when the voice shifts to first person, the author is Elizabeth Gallus.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation or actions, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
With as many as 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, sexual assault is an ongoing issue. Research shows that one in five women and one in seventy-one men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Unfortunately, victims of sexual violence are also at greater risk for serious mental health consequences. I am passionate about this issue because my cousin was one of these statistics. Sexually molested at age 8; dying by suicide just 18 years later.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 24. One of the biggest concerns of most parents and school administrators is the fear of “copycat” suicides. Recently, the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” has sparked deep debate around the correlation between sexual assault victimization and suicidality. Research has shown that the prevalence of copycat suicides following a detailed portrayal, like that shown in “13 Reasons Why”, increased the risk of suicide involving the same method by 81% to 125% in weeks and months after the release.
Some believe the show has raised awareness about the growing issue of teen suicide, including displaying warning signs and symptoms. Others have expressed concern, accusing the show of romanticizing the issue and using overly graphic scenes, thereby triggering individuals already at risk. CNN and other media outlets seemed to confirm the fears when they reported an increase in the number of suicidal ideation and suicide method searches online since the show first aired.
Sexual assault is a significant precursor for suicidal behavior. Victims of sexual assault tend to suffer silently, and the impact can lead to very dangerous outcomes. Studies show that approximately 33% of female rape victims have suicidal thoughts, and 13% of female rape victims have attempted suicide. Additionally, male victims of sexual assault are at higher risk for suicide than females. Male victims of sexual assault in the United States are four times more likely to attempt suicide than female victims.
Numerous studies have shown that psychological distress, hopelessness, substance use/abuse, coping skills, and social support are key factors involved in the relationship between sexual abuse and suicide attempts. Issues involving sexual violence are extremely sensitive and must be handled properly upon first contact with a victim. Medical professionals, advocates, law enforcement, college administrators, etc. are often the first people to be notified when sexual violence cases are reported, thus how these professionals respond to the victims and/or the accused could have a direct impact on the outcomes and mental health status of these individuals. First responders’ reactions to the disclosure of a sexual assault by a victim are a critical determinant of how that individual will begin to process and respond to the trauma of an assault. Over the last few years, institutions of higher education have been in the spotlight, often criticized, for both their response to victims-and their adjudication practices for the accused.
Colleges and universities are often called out for having a “rape culture” on campus. Rape culture refers to a setting that permits or normalizes incidents of sexual violence through the permeation of discriminatory attitudes surrounding gender and sexuality. Additionally, with students generally ranging from 17 to 24 years of age, institutions are at increased risk for suicidality among students. This creates a proverbial “perfect storm” for administrators, law enforcement, counselors, and advocates.
Nevertheless, not all is hopeless. Institutions of higher education are also uniquely equipped to both proactively and reactively address these issues. In order to combat these risk factors, most institutions provide increased training and resources for students, staff, and faculty to help ensure a safer campus environment. If you are a student, colleges typically offer some or all of the following services to assist students with physical and mental safety:
Mental Health Counseling
Mental Health services are typically not billed to a student’s health insurance which allows for confidential counseling, with little or no risk of the student’s parents finding out through a billing process. Some counseling offices will also house counselors with specialized training and experience treating victims of sexual violence.
Anti-Violence Initiatives Offices
These offices are often the programming and educational training arm of colleges. They may house the organizers of the Green Dot campaigns, the Clothesline Project, Take Back the Night marches, and the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Awareness Month programs, in addition to the preventative outreach programs institutions offer. Some of these offices also house mental health counselors specializing in treating victims of sexual violence. Once again, the services of these counselors are typically not billed to a student’s health insurance plan.
A growing trend in college administration includes the utilization of case managers. These individuals may or may not be licensed social workers, but individuals tasked with receiving referrals regarding students who appear to be struggling. This role often includes direct outreach to the student and providing on/off campus resources; regularly scheduled “check-in” meetings throughout the semester; advocacy and support in working with other offices within the institution, etc.
CARE or other Behavioral Assessment Teams
Dean of Students offices are often tasked with creating a community of administrators who meet on a regular basis to review recent referrals and outreach to appropriate individuals in order to assist students. This group usually consists of administrators, including representatives from academia, student academic support services, disability services, student health services, counseling offices, residential education and housing, student conduct, and campus police.
Title IX Coordinator
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. If a student experiences sexual assault of any kind, schools are responsible for stopping the discrimination, preventing its recurrence, and addressing the effects that this may have on the victim. Under the Clery Act, school administrators are required to notify survivors of counseling services, inquire with the survivors about reporting options, either through law enforcement or the school, and provide academic and/or living accommodations, such as dormitory or class changes.
Partnerships with the JED Foundation
The JED Foundation is a non-profit organization designed to protect emotional health and prevent suicide of our teens and young adults. This organization works with campus leaders (administration) and healthcare professionals to help evaluate and strengthen mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention programming and systems.
Start by Believing
Start by Believing is a public awareness campaign dedicated to ending the cycle of silence. Because a friend or family member is typically the first person a victim confides in after an assault, each person's reaction is the first step in a long path toward justice and healing. Knowing how to respond is critical—a negative response can worsen the trauma and foster an environment where perpetrators face zero consequences for their crimes.
Because rapists often re-offend, one failed response can equal additional victims. Start by Believing is leading the way toward stopping this cycle, by creating a positive community response, informing the public, uniting allies and supporters, and improving our personal reactions. The goal is to change the world, and outcomes for victims, one response at a time.
How Will You Respond?
Responding to a disclosure isn’t complicated. There are four main tips when working with victims of sexual assault. START BY BELIEVING the victim. The words “I believe you” can have an enormous impact for survivors. BE SUPPORTIVE. Remind the victim it is not their fault and you are there to help. AVOID ASKING QUESTIONS that begin with “why?” Why questions can sound accusing and make a victim feel shame. Finally, ASK HOW YOU CAN HELP. Letting the survivor know that you are there for them and letting them make their own choices can make a world of difference to them.
I had no knowledge that my cousin was a victim of sexual abuse until almost a year after he died by suicide. By that time, I had already been addressing issues of sexual violence on college campuses as a student conduct administrator for over six years. I had heard the statistics…Rape and sexual assault are the most underreported crimes… Out of 100 rapes, only an estimated 5-20 cases are reported to law enforcement… It made me wonder how I could recognize possible signs and help a student if I could not recognize the signs in my own family. And if they did tell me, how could I show them that I believe them while also maintaining impartiality? How could I let them know that I care about them, without compromising the fairness and integrity of the system? How can I support this person and get them the resources they need to heal, both physically and emotionally?
While colleges may not have the power to change the narrative entirely, we can be better and do better. Through increased programming and prevention, training on trauma-informed interviewing techniques and investigations, and more comprehensive referrals, we can forge a path for change to help victims heal and receive the justice that they deserve; thereby reducing both victimization and suicidality in the process.