image of professional who works with survivors of abuse

Interview with Jessica Yaffa: 7 Ways Professionals Can Better Help Survivors of Abuse

Disclaimer: The tips in this article apply to addressing and responding to abuse when the individual is an adult. While some of the tips may apply to helping children, professional obligations when a child is involved can differ greatly.

In a recent interview, our very own internationally-known domestic violence expert, Jessica Yaffa, highlighted 7 ways mental health professionals can better help survivors of abuse. As she points out in the tips below, subtle, and not-so-subtle, differences in the way professionals respond to abuse can dramatically change a survivor’s experience.

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As many of us would agree, it bears no explanation that relationship abuse remains an epidemic that needs to be addressed.

And who better to address it with than those on the front lines? Mental health workers, including social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, all have optimal positions in reducing the staggering statistics of abuse. Unfortunately, the feedback from survivors shows that there is a gap in the training of these professionals that affects the efficacy of their services.

Jessica Yaffa, knows this all too well. As a domestic violence survivor, speaker, trainer, and advocate, Ms. Yaffa has witnessed, both personally and professionally, the holes in the collective response to abuse. She has traveled the nation, providing domestic violence trainings for professionals to help them better respond to relationship abuse. To be clear, the gaps in responding appropriately to abuse are not indicative of the professional’s capacity, but rather the inefficiency of how providers are trained to respond.

These 7 tips really only touch the surface of effective response to abuse, but they serve as an important gateway to much needed conversation that will help us all better meet the needs of survivors.

  1. “Meet survivors of abuse where they are.” Abuse is complicated and over time, the experience becomes a tapestry of intricately woven threads of coping mechanisms, fears, behaviors, limiting beliefs, and views that may seem skewed to outsiders. But to the survivor, this tapestry has become a safety blanket, and it is not uncommon that their very survival depends on it. To unravel this for them, then, is to unravel their security. Through unconditional support, listening without judgement, and providing the proper space and time, in essence, to meet them where they are, the survivor can begin to untwist the threads and do away with those that no longer serve them.
  2. “When a survivor discloses their abuse, ask what resources are needed, don’t assume.” The knee-jerk reaction to disclosure is often to jump in with a list of resources to “fix” the situation. Usually done with the best of intentions, it is assumed that survivors need the resources providers are trained to give. Offering a list of all resources, all at once, can overwhelm a survivor. Perhaps more importantly, however, when a provider asks what resources an individual needs, it empowers the individual to be proactive in their healing journey, reminds them they are autonomous individuals with the power to take control of their situation, and conveys the professional’s respect for the client.
  3. “Validate each survivor’s experience of abuse.” All forms of abuse, physical/sexual, psychological, economic, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, stalking, you name it, leave an extensive mark on the spirit. With this understanding, no form of abuse is lesser than the other and should be treated as such. Moreover, it is up to the individual, not the professional, to define the severity of their experience, as well as the feelings surrounding their experience. This is a time for understanding, validation, and compassion. Not a time to try to fit things into neatly categorized boxes based on textbook definitions of abuse.
  4. “Don’t ask them to share their story with you.” Professionals are often trained to dive in and get at the heart of issues. If the individual is willing to share openly and has invited the professional to ask questions, then there is little conflict in doing so. However, in cases of abuse, and trauma in general, asking someone to recount details, or even asking them to share their story, doesn’t just invade their right to privacy, it can actually serve to re-traumatize them. There are many ways to help a survivor without needing all the details – let them take the lead and share on their own terms.
  5. “Don’t insist they leave their abuser.” If someone shares that they are experiencing abuse, the natural response is that the individual must leave the abuser. This reaction makes sense because, to the outsider, the answer seems clear: The fastest way to get out of harm’s way, is to get out of harm’s way. This logic, however, doesn’t neatly apply to the intricate and complicated dynamics of an abusive relationship, and external pressure to leave can actually halt progress rather than promote it.
  6. “Remind them that they have a right to change their mind.” This right applies to everything – they have the right to change their mind with their partner, about their partner, about whether to stay in the relationship or leave, the right to decide how they feel about their experience, even the right to change their mind about seeking help. An explicit reminder that there is no “right” way to feel, think or act, and that they reserve the right to change their mind, empowers an individual to show up honestly and authentically, which is the exact space where healing begins.
  7. “Leave expectations and agendas at the door.” The number 1 most important thing when helping a survivor is the providing the space for authentic connection. The key to establishing authentic connection is offering un-biased support, without expectation, without an agenda.

Often, professionals attach expectation (many times unconsciously) to a client’s disclosure of abuse. Take, for example, tip #5 above. The response to tell someone to leave an abuser is more than a response. It is an expectation. This expectation then leads to an agenda to get the individual to leave the relationship, typically resulting in one of two outcomes: Either the survivor never returns to the provider because they are not ready to follow the prescriber’s agenda, or, they follow the agenda because they feel the need to “earn” the connection with their provider.  In either case, the professional’s goal to help their client is thwarted, and the foundation of authentic connection is eroded.

Much more effective is the assurance that the professional will hold space for them unconditionally, and that they will continue to receive support no matter what they choose to do, or not do. It is through the removal of contingencies, and being met with compassion, vulnerability, and respectful understanding, that the potential for true healing can emerge.

If these 7 tips leave you examining how you respond to survivors of abuse, you are most definitely not alone, nor is it an indication of your capabilities as a professional. It does, however, indicate the need of the collective whole to better support and equip those who selflessly work to improve the human experience. As with most things, bringing the discussion to the table is the first step in filling in the gaps.

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