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This PTSD Awareness Month, let’s commit to doing better by survivors of sexual assault

By Miriam Joelson

· PTSD,Sexual Assault,HR

Over the past couple of years, as incidents of sexual assault on college campuses have become undeniable, Americans have expressed both outrage at the crimes themselves and compassion for the victims. But with almost one in three rape survivors developing PTSD at some point in their lifetimes, these responses are not enough. The social and emotional repercussions of rape and sexual assault can last for years, and there is little institutional support and awareness for populations suffering from these crimes’ psychological aftermaths. In order to create environments that are truly inclusive and diverse, we need to do better by survivors of rape and sexual assault. Friends, family members, and partners need a better understanding of the psychological ramifications of sexual assault, including PTSD, as well as of resources available to survivors and their loved ones. And, as more people who have experienced trauma advance in their careers, we need to do everything we can to ensure that the workplace supports their long-term health and success.

Employers have done a lot to champion diversity and support employees in the workplace: Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are increasing in popularity, as are staff social workers. Still, I encourage employers across the country to be more proactive. Ideally, upon being hired, employees complete voluntary self-identification forms issued by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The form gives incoming employees the opportunity to open a conversation with Human Resources (HR), and ask for a reasonable accommodation. The form’s “Reasonable Accommodation Notice” explicitly states that, “Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities. Please tell us if you require a reasonable accommodation to apply for a job or to perform your job. Examples of reasonable accommodation include making a change to the application process or work procedures, providing documents in an alternate format, using a sign language interpreter, or using specialized equipment.” Though they are a step in the right direction of inclusivity, these accommodations skew towards physical disabilities, and someone suffering from PTSD might not be aware of accommodations that can help them do their job.

For example, my PTSD has made it very difficult to concentrate when I’m seated in a busy area, such as an open-floor office, or when I sit with my back towards an open space. Particularly as a new hire eager to prove my worth and not wanting special treatment, asking a supervisor for a “better” desk can feel awkward. That’s where a communication from HR would be powerful. I encourage HR to reach out to new employees who make a note of their PTSD in their self-identification form. The communication wouldn’t have to be intrusive or overbearing; a simple email listing EAP resources, as well as the possibility of a seat in a quiet, secluded area — or even the possibility of a designated day to work from home each week — would suffice.

But even a workplace accommodation does not cure the lasting psychological effects of sexual assault, and it can be difficult to identify a support network — particularly in a new working environment. Along with a small group of dedicated volunteers, I’ve created a non-profit, Project #HereForYou, to raise awareness for PTSD, advocate for survivors of sexual assault in their communities, and identify caring allies to whom survivors can turn without shame or fear of judgment. Our approach to tackling these three main objectives is simple: we’ve partnered with artists to create beautiful designs that signal to survivors everywhere, “I’m #HereForYou.” That way, when a survivor is in a new environment, surrounded by strangers, they will be able to find psychological safety, inclusion, and allyship by following the #HereForYou symbol. We’re starting with #HereForYou laptop stickers and are working towards expanding the brand to mugs, shirts, and similar gear that allows allies to wear their support with pride.

As much as I look forward to the day when I walk into a conference room and see #HereForYou stickers on every laptop, I’m even more excited for the day when victims of sexual assault no longer are made to feel ashamed or stigmatized, but proud for surviving. When each of our imperfect narratives makes us feel stronger and more, not less, human. At Project #HereForYou, we are already working towards that day. We hope you’ll join us.

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