Support for Survivors
How might we leverage social support to facilitate long term healing for survivors of sexual violence
Client: Youth Voices Network
Team: Nishita Chheda
Year: 2020- 2021
Collaborated with survivors, social workers, and allies to bring awareness to intimate partner violence and make healing more accessible to survivors
Every day we hear more and more stories of people who have experienced sexual violence. Sometimes these seem away but often times these stories hit close to home. Every 73 seconds someone experiences sexual violence leaving many people to to grapple with the long term effects of this violence. Traditionally survivors are encouraged to seek justice and care through formal systems. These are focused on immediate crisis care and follow a linear model of healing. However the nature of processing trauma is varied and complex. While some recognize and acknowledge the experience when it happens, for many people it can take years. Additionally, Sexual violence has long term and lasting impacts on survivors. 70% of survivors experience PTSD at some point in their lives. This affects not only the survivors but also their relationships with 37% experience family and friend problems, including decreased trust.Currently , care is centered around the immediate needs of survivors however long-term support is needed as they navigate their healing journey.This led us to our first inquiry: how might we reimagine long term healing for survivors of sexual violence?
Below is out MFA thesis presentation of the project, research, and intervention. The video gives a comprehensive overview of our process and outcomes with more details below. You can read the full report here
We started by doing desk research and read 50+ books, articles, and podcasts. Simultaneously we participated in a 12 week support group where we were able to hear the lived experience of survivors and understand their current challenges. Lastly we spoke with subject matter experts including therapist, practitioners, non-profit leaders and researchers to understand their perspective on the options available for survivors.
This is when we first came across the word co-survivor which is a friend family or loved one who is also impacted by the violence. This lead us to the first of many tensions which is that survivors of sexual violence are more likely to turn to their close networks for support, however these networks are often ill equipped to provide the support. When survivors do share, they are frequently met with negative reactions, judgment or shame, creating further isolation.
Workshops and Interviews
To understand the perspective of survivors and co survivors we did a mix of in-depth interviews and workshops. For survivors we predominantly focused on workshops as we found that to be the most respectful and trauma informed path. Many survivors feel more comfortable in a group and feel less pressure to share beyond their comfort level. Additionally in group settings people can build relationships with people who share similar experience which was part of our goal.
We collaborated with Youth Voices Network, an advocacy group of survivors through our community partner Day One. We worked with two social workers there to create and facilitate two workshops. One with survivors and one with co-survivors to understand their experiences with support.
During our facilitation with survivors , we heard that they often desire depth in their relationships, but it can be very challenging to process and communicate their experience with loved ones. Additionally, many shared that if they do work up the courage to communicate and are met with judgement, it causes a major break in trust or even an end to relationships.
When we spoke with co-survivors we heard things from their perspective. One shared openly that:
"There is a feeling of helplessness of not really being able to support [my partner] in certain situations. I'm supposed to be her partner but there's really nothing that I can do at this point, besides just being there. And that really pains me."
In addition to helplessness, Co-survivors are often faced with a lot of complicated feelings such as anger, sadness, guilt, and blame for themselves or the survivor. We wondered where they could go to address these concerns and when we spoke with more co-survivors we heard: “ I wasn’t sure where to look, and I wasn't sure what was actually helpful and what was not”.
The more we researched, the more we found that there are very few comprehensive resources available. These resources mostly focus on the survivor’s experience, which while central, further leaves co-survivor’s needs unaddressed.
Even with all of these challenges, every co-survivor we spoke to really wanted to play a role in the survivors healing journey. Because of this intrinsic motivation, and the survivors desire for this kind of support, we chose the survivor to co-survivor relationship as our leverage point.
Tensions and Insights
Our synthesis, learnings and insights are shared in the below tensions:
1. Loved ones may struggle with their own emotions, yet feel guilty seeking help.
2. Survivors need to be centered in the healing process, yet co-survivors have their own journey to healing
3. Survivors are encouraged to go to the police or hospital for help, yet survivors prefer (feel safer) getting help from friends and family
4. Survivors desire depth in their relationships yet find it challenging to communicate
5. Loved ones understand in theory what it means to support, yet find it difficult to apply in practice
6. Survivors see support from co survivors and survivors desire to help, yet both need the tools to get there
Balancing these tensions was the basis of our interventions.
This brings us to our intervention, Side by Side. We named our project side by side because we believe that this journey to healing is best done side by side. with both survivors and co-survivors recognizing their role and growing together.
The premise of our work and our model of change is a positive reinforcing loop. By increasing support for co-survivors, they are better able to support survivors which will lessen the burden survivors feel to heal alone and decrease the shame and stigma.
The less stigma they encounter, the more trust is built. With more trust, comes more open communication, enabling them to speak about their needs, feelings and boundaries.
We will first start with the piece that addresses the needs for both survivor and co survivor to heal together which are our healing guides. These healing guides were co-created with our community partner as well as survivors and co-survivors. The healing guide uses creative journaling and educational activities as a tool for healing and reflection, allowing people to process without worrying what another person might say.
Then, at the end of every section, there is an activity for them to come together and discuss.
The guide allows the survivor and co survivor to take ownership of their own healing.
Builds vocabulary to better communicate personal experiences.
Creates a trusted space where both parties can grow and learn together in a facilitated way.
In order to make this more accessible and sustainable, we are currently looking into independent publishing.
To get feedback on the healing guide, we created a book brunch where survivors could be in community with each other, while reading and reflecting. Though this started as a co-creation space for our healing guide, we soon realized that survivor to survivor relationships could enrich the experience of the healing guide.
We wanted to make sure that these relationships could go beyond our designated meetings so we did a lot of bonding together and also created an imessage group for us to stay connected.
After the book brunch we got this really nice note in a post survey:
They shared: “The activities and strategies I've learned have enabled me to engage in deep reflection regarding how I really feel and what I really need while I'm on this healing journey. Our time together has given me space to grow and has given me language to better express myself and talk about my experience with others.”
The benefits of a this group are:
It builds confidence and encourages sharing.
Creates feelings of validation and fosters belonging.
And Builds capacity for self reflection without judgement.
Online Platform for Co-Survivor Support
While we were co-creating with survivors we were also co-creating with co-survivors. From speaking with them, we found that their primary desire was a space for their questions to be answered so we began creating an online platform to make this a reality. Every week we co-created and tested with co-survivors to make sure their needs would be met.
This led us to create Side by Side Support, a digital platform where co-survivors can send a message to a trauma therapist, receive a response with additional resources and also learn from the experiences of other co-survivors.
This benefit of this platform is:
It provides them with a space to learn and grow, without judgement.
provides them with a reliable source of information and answers.
It is a community space where they can feel seen and heard
"It was so nice to have community in this isolating time, and especially to have a safe and open sense in it, where people were accepted as they were and their strengths and triumphs were celebrated. And that there wasn’t pressure to be anyone you weren’t or share anything you didn’t want to."
"I’ve never had the opportunity to really gather with other people with similar trauma for a healing journey, so that’s been really special for me. The time we’ve spent together has been an incredible reminder that I am surrounded by love. These gatherings have almost given me the permission I thought I needed to feel the love that is around me."
"The activities and strategies I’ve learned have enabled me to engage in deep reflection regarding how I really feel and what I really need while I’m on this healing journey. Our time together has given me space to grow and has given me language to better express myself and talk about my experience with myself and others. Thank you for all your work. I can’t wait to continue this journey with you all. I feel like I’ve gained support and love that I didn’t imagine at the start of these gatherings."
“The work that you’re doing is so needed. For years I thought that working through and interrogating my experiences (positive and traumatic), feelings, and needs wasn’t worth while work, and that I didn’t have time for it, because I had better things to do with my time."