In SHARE support groups, students take comfort in knowing they are not alone
The survivor of sexual assault, Yale senior Kim (not her real name) says she is “blessed” to have empathetic friends with whom she can share her story.
But last year, she found special comfort and camaraderie in a more organized setting — a Yale Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center (SHARE) support group — in which she could gather weekly with other sexual assault survivors while school was in session.
For Kim, the group was helpful in her own journey of healing because it allowed her to take part in a “continuing and moving dialogue” with other women, each of whom had unique experiences but who shared some similar thoughts and feelings, she says.
“It felt very comforting and welcoming,” says Kim. “We could talk about our own experiences in a general way in the group, which was lightly guided but not overly structured. For me, who has not had a lot of experience talking in groups before, it helped me to see paths for processing my own experience in a way that was inspiring.”
Kim is one of dozens of students who have taken advantage of SHARE’s confidential sexual assault support groups. Offered for the past several years by SHARE, the groups meet for weekly, 75-minute sessions over six weeks in the center’s space on the lower level of Yale University Health Services. Reminder notices are sent at the beginning of each semester. Both male and female undergraduate and graduate students are invited to participate, whether they are recent survivors of sexual assault or experienced the trauma earlier in their lives.
The support groups are guided by SHARE’s director, Carole Goldberg, the center’s assistant director, Jennifer Czincz and Amy Myers, program associate (sometimes two counselors will guide larger groups together). All three are experienced sexual harassment and assault responders and educators. Goldberg, Czincz, or Myers will meet individually with all participants before assigning them to a group.
“In these individual meetings, we get a sense of where the student is in her or his ‘resolution’ process — whether it’s a recent situation or experienced something longer ago — and make sure that group participants will fit together well,” explains Goldberg. “Some of the participants have already been in counseling with us individually at the SHARE Center, while others have not.”
Goldberg and Czincz say that student participants have been grateful for the support they received in a group setting.
“Students appreciate being in a group with other students who really understand their experience,” Goldberg says. “They might not be comfortable with friends if they don’t think those friends will understand what they’ve been through. It’s very powerful to listen to other people’s stories in the group — to talk about things that have worked for them as they’ve gone on to manage their lives. When we put something into words, we hear it in a different way.”
Czincz adds that one of the greatest benefits of the support group is that it can help participants feel less alienated as a result of their trauma.
“Sexual assault often can be an isolating experience,” she says. “Developing a support network with people who have had similar life experiences can be really wonderful. The groups offer a type of support that one cannot derive from individual therapy.”
For many sexual assault survivors, the fear that others will not believe the story of their trauma makes coming forward a great challenge, note Czincz and Goldberg.
This is particularly difficult since 80% to 85% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, friends, or family members.
“As soon as you join a support group, you are in a group of believers,” Goldberg says.
Many survivors also question whether their own experience actually constitutes assault or whether they are to blame for it in some way. Participants in the support group often help each through these doubts, according to the Yale psychologists.
“People can harbor this belief — that they were somehow to blame — for years of their lives,” Goldberg says. “While there is no such thing as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation like sexual assault, group members can and do help each other ‘normalize’ their responses; just by working through some of the issues together, they can help each other move beyond self-doubt and blame.”
Often, support group participants talk about their day-to-day lives, and share with each other the ways in which they’ve learned to cope with or manage their feelings about their experience, says Kim.
“Some of us talk about specific things that happened but we also speak more broadly about how we handled our experience,” she says.
Kim met with Goldberg before joining the support group, and says that after sharing her personal story, she knew that she had made the right decision to participate.
“Dr. Goldberg was so empathetic and supportive,” says the Yale student. “I had never experienced anything like that before. Just to have that kind of acknowledgement from a person was incredibly helpful.”
In her support group, she adds, “I was comfortable right off the bat.”
Serving as a crisis response center, SHARE offers confidential information and support to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who are dealing with sexual misconduct of any kind. Those who turn to the center for support can do so anonymously and all members of the Yale community are welcome to call. SHARE counselors are not required to file a report about the sexual misconduct.
The same confidentiality extends to support groups: All participants agree not to share anything they learn about each other outside of the group.
Likewise, says Goldberg, participants are free to share within the group only as much as they feel comfortable with.
“Participants can ask each other questions, but there is no demand for a response,” she says. “There is never a demand for giving details or explanations. There is no agenda either — whatever comes up in the group is up to the participants themselves.”
Czincz and Goldberg emphasize that SHARE support groups are an additional offering of the center, which also provides individual counseling and advocacy for victims of sexual assault or misconduct.
“The group sessions are just one setting in which survivors can feel supported,” says Goldberg. “For some students, individual counseling is more appropriate, and that option is always available.
“We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any student who needs us,” continues Goldberg. “That’s true even if we are in a meeting — we can still be reached and will respond. In urgent situations, we’ll meet with a student in the middle of night.” In addition to providing information, advocacy, and support, Goldberg, Czincz and Myers — along with SHARE educator John Criscuolo — also provide training and informational workshops about sexual misconduct, intimate partner violence and stalking, as well as consent and sensitivity training. Many of these workshops are part of Yale’s freshmen orientation program.
“There is no issue or concern that is too big or too small to come to us with,” says Czincz. “We want students to know that they don’t have to struggle on their own.”
She, Goldberg and Myers serve as advocates for students who are going through a formal or informal complaint process after an experience of sexual misconduct, but sometimes they are also contacted by individuals seeking advice about how to support a friend who has been harmed.
In acute situations, there are no limits to the number of individual counseling sessions offered to students who seek help from the SHARE counselors, and, likewise, sometimes — at the request of participants — they have extended the group support sessions beyond the typical six-week period.
“It takes tremendous courage to be a survivor,” says Goldberg. “[For survivors], their experience becomes part of the fabric of who they are. Sometimes people work with us and then stop, but will later return when, for example, they are entering a new relationship and are grappling with some issues.”
“We’re here to support them through any part of their journey,” adds Czincz. “We tell them: ‘If there is anything getting in the way of maximizing your time as a student, we’d like to help.’”
For Kim, her experience in the SHARE support group has helped her to recognize she is in a continuously supportive community.
“I had previously thought that SHARE was just a crisis center until I found out about the support groups,” she says. “I’m grateful that it serves as that but is also more than that. SHARE is one of the safest places I’ve felt on campus.”
If interested in joining a SHARE support group or for more information, contact Carole Goldberg at 203-432-0310, Jennifer Czincz at 203-432-2610 or Amy Myers at 203-436-8217. For other concerns, call SHARE at 203-432-2000 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The SHARE Center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and walk-ins are welcome.
(Image via Shutterstock)