Speaking Out Loud: The Present Issue of Abuse
Unless you have been completely shut off from civilisation, you will be aware that a crisis in football has erupted. Well that’s what the press are calling it, but I disagree, the crisis isn’t in football, but in how we deal with the mental health and wellbeing of male victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
When Andy Woodward, formally of Crewe Alexandra FC, broke his 20 year silence and revealed to The Guardian that he had been sexually abused as a young player, he unknowingly lit a fuse. An avalanche of disclosures followed from many incredibly brave men who had kept these life changing secrets locked up for decades and the press scrambled for their ‘pound of flesh’. The multi-billion pound machismo world of football was turned upside down, and with it, the worlds of many boys and men who were pushed to emotional breaking point as they struggled with their own secret memories. Health professionals everywhere were hearing individual’s first disclosures of being victims of sexual abuse. Many asked for help and some wanted specialist support and at that point, professionals realise there’s a crisis in mental health dealing with the issue of sexual abuse and male victims/survivors.
Across the UK there are approximately 50 rape crisis centres, 150+ ‘Survivor’ charities; then add to that the big three children’s charities plus a few more smaller young persons’ organisations and we have a total of approx 250 organisations working with sexual abuse in the UK. Whilst over 70% deal with girls and women, only a handful of organisations work solely and specifically with boys and men - in fact there’s only six in total.
As one of those six, Survivors Manchester has worked hard to develop services that meet the needs of boys and men across Greater Manchester, and working hard to reach other parts of the North West. As a survivor-led organisation it is vital that we’re constantly evolving to the changing landscape, so much so that in Jan 2016 we completed a year-long organisational development project to become IAPT compliant [https://www.england.nhs.uk/mentalhealth/case-studies/survivors-manchester].
But with so few places for mental health professionals to refer on to, demand for our professionals workshops are exceeding supply. It is vital that we work together on this and upskill where we can, so I am making a New Year’s Resolution right now (and unlike me going to the gym, this one I’ll stick to) that Survivors Manchester will actively support our colleagues across the mental health field to develop their current skillset that will better equip them to assist male survivors in their workplace; whilst supporting commissioners to understand a better response to the needs of male survivors across the region.
Speaking as a survivor and a professional working with survivors, I can tell you first-hand what it’s like to be silent and to not have the words to speak out; what it’s like to feel so isolated and alone with a core belief that no one will ever understand; how much of a struggle it is to engage in getting help. How “helpful” drugs, self-harm and even thinking through those ideas of suicide were at times. You know, when the white noise is too loud, you need to be able to turn it down, the same applies to the vivid pictures that seem to randomly appear in your head of what happened. When it looks like there is no give let-up (?) up on that and it’s never ending, when you feel valueless (that’s not the same as free), then why can’t people understand suicide seems like a viable option?
Like many survivors, when I found a few words to put together and plucked up the courage to use them to speak out, I didn’t have time to spend sat on an 18 month counselling waiting list, it’s now or never folks! I needed to jump now! And when I did I needed someone to catch me, or at least soften the landing. That’s where YOU come in.
I genuinely believe that if we are to meet the needs of male survivors of sexual abuse, and female survivors too, then we need to work together – that’s specialist services and community mental health teams; general GP counselling services and third sector providers; psychology and ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor - http://www.survivorsmanchester.org.uk/support-services/independent-sexual-violence-advisor). As I was once told, abuse happens in isolation whereas healing happens together.
Sexual abuse can be an extremely scary, overwhelming and silencing topic – for both the survivor and the helper, don’t be worried about that. Irving Yallom once described psychotherapy as ‘two people both sat in a room wondering what the hell is going on’. This brilliant and congruent description of helping is a great basis to start supporting survivors. Abuse is about power and control – the removal of it from one by another. So if the loss of power and control resulted in maladaptive and unhealthy coping mechanisms, then the best antidote to that is supporting the creation of a space where the survivor feels in control of his/her present, his/her engagement and his/her future. We don’t empower people, we provide space for them to become empowered themselves.
- Ask what they need and if they don’t know, give them the basics of what’s on offer.
- Be the co-pilot or passenger in their healing journey and don’t be the driver.
- Whilst you may be the expert in depression, personality disorders, attachment theory - they are most certainly the experts in their experience of abuse, they just don’t realise that yet.
- Be transparent and not opaque - remember, the abuser was opaque, that’s how they managed to keep the individual silent in the first place.
- Learn the survivor’s language and teach him/her yours.
- Get used to being uncomfortable and positively model it.
- Keep your boundaries. If you say the session is an hour, make sure it is an hour. A survivor’s boundaries have already been smashed by the abuser, don’t be the next one.
- Don’t make promises and don’t keep secrets.
- Be as present as you want the survivor to be.
“Healing is a journey, not a destination” and like all journeys, sometimes you need to take a rest and then carry on when you have your energy back. Think about how will your service model facilitate this?
And the best tip I can give you when faced with a disclosure… breathe.