A college student goes to a party. She’s drinking, hanging out with her friends, flirting with a cute guy. They go back to her dorm room and start kissing. Then the guy forces her to have sex, even though she doesn’t want to, leaving the young woman feeling immense amounts of fear, anxiety and shame.
Though this might sound like a typical scenario, it is actually a crime, and it’s one that can leave deep emotional scars on victims for years to come.
According to a 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities, 27.2 percent of all college students — more than one in four — experience unwanted sexual contact, from kissing to touching to actual intercourse. And although incidents are more common among women, men can also be victims of sexual assault.
Robbie Bogard, Director of Integrative and Group Services at Yellowbrick, says these kind of incidents can have a serious impact on college students’ mental health. After a sexual assault, many students suffer from symptoms of PTSD, which include having intrusive memories of the event, mood instability, feeling fearful, and being triggered by certain sights, sounds and smells that remind them of the incident. They can be hyper anxious or feel numb or disconnected from their feelings altogether.
“There can be a lot of shame and self-blame. That’s very common,” Bogard says.
Bogard says college students often blame themselves for what happened, thinking if only they hadn’t been drinking, or hadn’t been friendly with the person, or if they had fought back more it wouldn’t have happened.
“It’s important for people to know that you can make yourself vulnerable to sexual assault, but you’re never responsible for other people’s behavior,” Bogard says.
Bogard says students also feel shame if they were sexually aroused by the incident, even if it was unwanted, and these mixed emotions can cause them to have increased shame about their bodies.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of sexual assault aren’t short-lived. Bogard says sexual assault may cause some students to avoid dating or being in a situation with someone of the opposite sex for years to come. Others may actually become more promiscuous to try to prove to themselves that they have power over their own bodies.
Someone who is assaulted is at greater risk of using alcohol or drugs more heavily to numb their feelings, leading to increased chance of substance abuse.
Luckily, women who report the incident and seek mental health treatment quickly have a better chance of overcoming these emotional roadblocks.
Here are some of Bogard’s tips for college students who have experienced a sexual assault:
- Trust Your Own Experience
Often, women tell themselves that what happened wasn’t a big deal or that it wasn’t serious enough to tell someone about. Bogard says don’t listen to your doubts. “Trust your own experience,” she says. “If you feel that it wasn’t right, listen to that.”
- Tell Someone You Trust
Bogard says telling someone about what happened is key. She suggests going to a campus counselor, women’s center, or even a resident assistant. Keeping it a secret will only prolong your suffering.
- Get Mental Health Treatment
Bogard says it’s essential that students seek out mental health treatment to process the complex emotions that come from sexual assault and to reduce feelings of shame. And, she says, the earlier you get help, the better.
- Understand That It’s Not Your Fault
Remember, no matter what you had to drink, what you were wearing, or what you didn’t say, sexual assault is never your fault.
- Get Supported Exposure To Things You Want to Avoid
If the thought of going on a date or walking to a certain part of campus fills you with dread, get friends to come with you as you experience these things. By having new, positive experiences, you can learn to overcome old triggers.