First Contact support tool

When someone discloses a sexual assault for the first time, a supportive reaction can make all the difference, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. You may feel some conflicting thoughts and emotions about the disclosure but this person trusted you enough to disclose a very personal experience to you and the priority is to focus on their needs.

Immediate action

  • Ensure the victim/survivor’s safety. Are they away from the alleged offender? If they are phoning you, can you help them get to go to someone they trust? If the person is out of danger now, tell them, “You are safe now.”
  • Once safety is established, medical care is the next consideration.  Encourage the victim/survivor to get medical care for their immediate needs and if appropriate, explain the importance of preserving evidence. (Not all hospitals hold ‘rape kits’; check the resource list to determine the location nearest to the victim/survivor.)
  • You can say, “I won’t have all of the answers, but I will make sure you are supported."

Listen

  • Find a private place to talk, clear your schedule.  Be patient – it can take time.
  • Ask, “How can I help you?” Do not ask what happened (this is a question which should only be asked by the investigating officer and/or trained medical staff).
  • Keep your voice calm. Your calm voice and manner can help the victim/survivor remain focused and feel safe.
  • Show that you are actively listening through your body language (e.g., nodding, facing in their direction, sitting down) and words (e.g., “I hear what you’re saying”).
  • Respect their personal space, and do not touch them. Even if you think they want a comforting touch, resist your urge to do so. Always follow their lead. You can offer them something to keep them warm, like a blanket or your jacket, (shock can involve feeling cold, shivering and shaking).

Believe

  • Communicate without judging. “I’m so glad that you came to me. I believe you're being honest..” “This doesn’t change how I think of you.”
  •  Assure them that their reactions to a very traumatic event are normal, and avoid promising them that everything will be okay.
  • If the victim/survivor says things that sound like they ‘should’ have done something differently, should have dressed differently or in some way behaved in a way which could have prevented the assault, let them know that, it is not their fault. The person who commits the assault is responsible.
  • Be aware that feelings of guilt and shame can contribute to thoughts of self-harm. Behaviours, thoughts and feelings expressed by the person may reveal a heightened level of distress.
  • If you suspect that the person is having thoughts of suicide, ask them clearly and directly, ex: “Are you thinking of suicide?” If they answer yes, offer to assist them in accessing professional psychological services.

Follow-up action

  • Police involvement is recommended; offer to contact them on the victim/survivor’s behalf or arrange for them to speak with a police representative themselves. The assault can be reported at your local Military Police detachment or by contacting one of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service (CFNIS) Regional Offices. It can also be reported to civilian police forces.
  • The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC) has access to many resources (including which local hospital is the best choice to meet the needs of the person you are assisting). Offer to contact the SMRC or assist the person to contact the SMRC themselves.
  • If the victim/survivor wishes to call the police or the SMRC, offer to sit with them as they place the call.
  • If the victim/survivor gives you explicit permission to place the call on their behalf:
    • Identify yourself by name.
    • Note that you are calling for someone else.
    • Ask any questions the survivor wishes answered.
    • Be sure to note the name and any other contact information of a specific person with whom the survivor may follow up.

Recognize Your Own Limitations

While you can provide the initial supportive and compassionate response, there are professional services available that have people with in-depth knowledge and training around the complexities of sexual assault.

Continued support for a co-worker/friend

If someone has trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support:

  • Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the victim/survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
  • Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a victim/survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
  • Continue to be aware of the possibility of suicidal ideation. The best way to confirm whether or not someone is thinking of suicide is to ask them directly. Never be afraid to ask and offer assistance with accessing resources.
  • Remember that the healing process is fluid.  Everyone has bad days. Don’t interpret flashbacks, bad days, or silent spells as “setbacks.” It’s all part of the process.
  • Provide resources. You can communicate to your co-worker or friend that there are resources available to help them with self-care after trauma.

Continued support for someone you supervise

Consider the following ways to show your continued support for someone that you supervise:

  • Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the victim/survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
  • Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a victim/survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
  • Continue to be aware of the possibility of suicidal ideation. The best way to confirm whether or not someone is thinking of suicide is to ask them directly. Never be afraid to ask and offer assistance with accessing resources.
  • Remember that the healing process is fluid.  Everyone has bad days. Don’t interpret flashbacks, bad days, or silent spells as “setbacks.” It’s all part of the process. Ensure that the person is allowed time to attend medical and other appointments. Assist with administrative and logistical arrangements so that the person can access services and receive care. Inform only those with a legitimate need to know why the person is absent or requires logistical assistance.
  • Provide resources. You can communicate that there are resources available to help them with self-care after trauma.
  • Keep an eye on the person’s safety: consider developing a workplace safety plan. If a Restraining or Protection Order has been issued to keep someone away from the victim/survivor, ensure that the terms are being respected. If the order is violated, notify law enforcement at once.
  • When determining circumstances warrant temporary redeployment or reassignment of the victim/survivor or the perpetrator, consider the victim/survivor’s input on any movements of either the victim/survivor or the alleged perpetrator.

Why it may be difficult to disclose

A sexual assault most often includes profound humiliation and shame. Even though sexual assault is more about aggression, power and control, sexual assault involves a person’s sexual body parts and behaviours, both of which some people are embarrassed or feel ashamed to talk about. When there is physical violence (such as overpowering someone or using sex as a weapon), the trauma and shame can be deep; sexual assault is intensely dehumanizing, and the victim/survivor may feel like they lack control over their life.

It is likely that a victim/survivor of sexual assault may:

  • Feel deeply embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, especially if the assault was perpetrated by someone they trusted, or if there were drugs or alcohol involved.
  • Fear they will not be believed or will be blamed, especially if this has been their experience in the past or they have seen this kind of thing in popular culture (e.g., television, movies).
  • Be confused about whether or not it was sexual assault (especially if alcohol or drugs were involved).
  • Fear for their safety, or the safety of their friends, especially if threats were involved.
  • Feel conflicted about the perpetrator getting into trouble, especially if they were assaulted by someone they know (e.g., intimate/dating partner, friend, family member) or if the perpetrator is part of the same unit.
  • Fear retaliation, such as reprisal, ostracism, or maltreatment for having reported the incident.
  • Fear the response of the police and the justice system or fear nothing will come of reporting.
  • Hope to put it behind them quickly by avoiding talking about it or avoiding having contact with the perpetrator.

All responses to sexual assault are attempts to survive this traumatic experience, both physically and emotionally. These responses can be particularly complex for victims/survivors who have experienced early and/or repeat trauma. They may appear anywhere on a continuum from calm and collected to frantic and distraught. A victim/survivor may also respond with anger, aggression, or even violence. All are ways of coping. If you are hearing about a sexual assault immediately after it happens, you may see the victim/survivor expressing anxiety, confusion, shock and disbelief. They may also appear numb. They may be disoriented and their articulation of what happened may not seem coherent.

 Each victim/survivor copes with sexual assault differently. It is important to remember that there is no right way for a survivor to feel, and there is no set timeline for when a victim/survivor should be feeling better. To heal from sexual assault, victims/survivors need to draw on their individual strengths and skills and find what works best for them.

Common reactions to a disclosure

It’s important to know that there is no normal or single way to react when someone you know has survived an act of sexual violence. Learning how to manage conflicting thoughts, feelings, and emotions which can be intense and difficult to deal with, can help you support the victim/survivor and can help you feel less overwhelmed as well.

  • Disbelief. When you first hear about the assault, it may seem surreal; you might have trouble believing the assault happened. After a traumatic experience, it’s common for victims/survivors and those around them to experience denial. It’s important to focus on believing the victim and acknowledging their story.
  • Anger. You might feel anger for a number of reasons: towards yourself for not being able to protect the victim/survivor; towards the victim for telling you about something that is hard to hear; or towards the perpetrator for carrying out the assault and hurting the victim/survivor. It can be difficult to keep anger from affecting the way you communicate.
  • Sadness. When you learn that a trauma such as sexual assault has happened to someone you know, it is normal to feel worried, or powerless. You might feel sad for how this has changed the victim/survivor’s life.  If you know the perpetrator, you might feel sad for how this has changed their life as well.  Self-care strategies and coping skills can help you move through these feelings.
  • Guilt. You may feel guilty that you could not prevent the assault from happening. You may feel guilty that something so terrible happened to someone else and not to you. It can be helpful to refocus your energy on making the victim/survivor feel supported as they move forward.
  • Anxiety. You might feel anxious about responding the “right” way or worried about how this event will impact your relationship with the victim/survivor. Reassure the victim/survivor that the assault was not their fault and that you believe them. These can be the most powerful and helpful words for a victim/survivor to hear.
  • Confusion. You might feel confused by what you’re hearing. You might not understand how it could happen or why it has happened. Sadly, sexual assaults are more common that we’d like to think. Although you may be struggling with feelings of confusion, especially if you know the perpetrator, you should always try to believe the victim/survivor. They are never to blame for the assault.

Common pitfalls when reacting to a disclosure

  • A judgmental, shocked, or over-reactive initial response.
  • Disbelief, minimizing, or questioning the “truth” of a victim/survivor’s story or reactions – especially if they seem to be very calm, or don’t want to report to police.
  • Asking for unnecessary details, or focusing on the behaviour, appearance, and/or location of the victim/survivor at the time of the assault.
  • Focusing on your own emotional reaction (e.g., horror, sadness, anger, recalling a similar experience you may have had).
  • Questioning why a victim/survivor did not act in certain ways (e.g., fighting back, reporting immediately to police, or discontinuing contact with the perpetrator after the assault). It is important to note that people respond to a traumatic incident in many different ways; there is no “typical” response.

Practicing self care after trauma

Self-care is about taking steps to feel healthy and comfortable. Whether it happened recently or years ago, self-care can help you cope with the short- and long-term effects of a trauma like sexual assault. 

Whatever stage of healing you are at, it is always important for you to take care of yourself. There are various ways of doing this and whichever ones work for you are the right ones. The following are just a few suggestions that you may like to try.

Physical self-care

After a trauma, it’s important to keep your body healthy and strong. You may be healing from injuries or feeling emotionally drained. Good physical health can support you through this time. Think about a time when you felt physically healthy, and consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • How were you sleeping? Did you have a sleep ritual or nap pattern that made you feel more rested?
  • What types of food were you eating? What meals made you feel healthy and strong?
  • What types of exercise did you enjoy? Were there any particular activities that made you feel more energized?
  • Did you perform certain routines? Were there activities you did to start the day off right or wind down at the end of the day?

Emotional self-care

Emotional self-care means different things to different people. The key to emotional self-care is being in tune with yourself. Think about a time when you felt balanced and grounded, and consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • What fun or leisure activities did you enjoy? Were there events or outings that you looked forward to?
  • Did you write down your thoughts in a journal or personal notebook?
  • Were meditation or relaxation activities a part of your regular schedule?
  • What inspirational words were you reading? Did you have a particular author or favorite website to go to for inspiration?
  • Who did you spend time with? Was there someone, or a group of people, that you felt safe and supported around?
  • Where did you spend your time? Was there a special place, maybe outdoors or at a friend’s house, where you felt comfortable and grounded?

Self-care isn’t always easy to take on by yourself. To speak with someone who is trained to help, contact Mental Health / Injury resources.

Self care for points of first contact

Good self-care enables you to better care for others, especially if there is someone in your life who has survived sexual violence.

  • Maintain your lifestyle. It can be difficult to stay emotionally strong if you are mostly focusing on the sexual assault. Maintaining your lifestyle and continuing to do what you enjoy is important for your emotional wellness. If you enjoy painting, cooking, exercising, spending time with friends, or other activities, keep them up. It may seem challenging to make time to do these activities, but they can be helpful self-care strategies in the long run.
  • Reach out and talk about it. It’s normal to have a difficult time processing the sexual assault of someone you care about. It can continue to be difficult as time goes on and the victim/survivor begins the healing process. Sometimes hearing about other people’s experiences can revive negative experiences of your own. You can call the SMRC at 1-844-750-1648 or DND.SMRC-CIIS.MDN@forces.gc.ca to speak with a trained professional who understands what you’re going through for support, options or have questions answered.
  • Make plans. Sometimes talking about what happened can help you cope with your feelings, and other times it can make you feel more stuck. Make plans that give you a break from talking or thinking about the assault. It could mean starting a new hobby or revisiting one you already enjoy. You could go to dinner with a group of friends who understand this isn't time to discuss what happened. Maybe you prefer a solo activity, like going on long walks. Let this be a time where you can take your mind off the assault.
  • Take time to relax. Relaxation looks different for everyone. You might consider meditation or deep breathing exercises. Maybe journaling helps you sort through your thoughts and find peace. Build time into your day for these moments of relaxation so that you don’t skip out.

Self-care isn’t always easy to take on by yourself. To speak with someone who is trained to help, contact Mental Health / Injury resources.

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: