Often when we think of mental health, we think of a neurological disorder, diseases that are physically obvious, or those that we can diagnose. Our president declared May 2013, National Mental Health Awareness Month. In his proclamation, President Obama highlighted mental health ailments by saying, “They shoulder conditions like depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder -- debilitating illnesses that can strain every part of a person's life.” Emotional disorders are often overlooked as mental health issues but they impact a person’s physical and mental well being. In light of National Mental Health Awareness Month, I need to highlight the stress and agony that crime victims face in the healing process.
I am a survivor of dating violence and a victim of crime. My abuser attacked my mother leaving her severely injured; she was bludgeoned, set on fire, and left for dead. After a couple of months in an ICU burn victim unit, they released my mother to an acute traumatic brain injury facility in upstate New York. She was still in a coma at the time and even further away from home. My family had to make serious lifestyle adjustments just to visit her. At first there were a more than a dozen of family members constantly around to support my mom and I. The support group consisted of anyone from long distance relatives to childhood friends, but as time passed it dwindled down to just immediate family members.
It was hurtful when all of the familiar and comforting faces stopped coming around, I felt abandoned and hurt by those I expected to be there but as expected people become consumed and overwhelmed with their own lives. There was a turning point for me during one of my therapy sessions where reality hit me; horrible things happened to me and I would have to accept them in order to move on. Going public for the first time, in an article with Glamour Magazine was just the beginning of my healing process, I had to put aside my healing while being there for my mother during her recovery.
From New Years Day of 2011 to the end of 2012 we spent all of our birthdays and holidays at the hospital and if we weren't at the hospital, we were at court. Every time there has been a hearing either myself, or a number of my family members have been present in court. It was important for us to follow the case and make sure the family’s opinion was considered in the district attorney’s office. The whole court process was very exhausting on all of us. We had to take off of work and spend full days there waiting for him to be called up and hoping he would eventually admit his guilt.
At one point we believed that the case would be presented before a jury, so the assistant district attorney began preparing me for trial. My mother was interviewed and prepared to take the stand to discuss her injuries. I spent hours in their office rehashing old painful memories and opening up about my prior relationship. I recently received a call from Safe Horizon reminding me that they were there for me if I needed any guidance during the court process. They offer legal and counseling services, and support during the court process, all of which we took full advantage of when we began the court process.
Earlier in the month my family and I gathered at the courthouse for what was supposed to be the sentencing day. We would have finally had that day where I could address the negative impact his actions have made on my mother's lifestyle. I spent two weeks drafting a seven page letter on behalf of my mother, my family, and myself. Unfortunately, we were struck with another blow stalling the process, and our closure. While I do believe in due process, my spirit was crushed. The A.D.A on the case explained the process and assured us that he cannot change his guilty plea that he previously accepted, but it does not change the fact that our justice is prolonged.
It seems as if he is doing whatever he can as an act of desperation to avoid the inevitable. As he made his way out of the court room he glanced over to where my family was seated and smirked. I rushed out of the courtroom feeling sick and upset after learning that there would be another 3 week delay. We are back to playing a waiting game and hoping our closure is soon to come. I can't help but to wonder what type of emotional turmoil happens to dating victims without large support groups. Who is there for them throughout the healing and litigation process?
Wrapping up the final days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM) we can sit back and reflect on the major events in the beginning of the year to raise awareness to sexual violence. The nation watched as House Reps debated ratifying the bill to limit the services offered to Native Americans and LBGT but that measure was rejected. On February 28, 2013 Congress emerged with the Senate’s version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (#VAWA), providing care for all victims of crime. The bill provides funding for community prevention programs and various services such as legal aid and shelter after the victims have already been assaulted.
The NYC Department of Youth and Community Development is hosting a number of events to commence the final week of Sexual Abuse Awareness Month ( #SAAM ) and to honor #DenimDayNYC . Yesterday, the Children’s Aid Society’s Family Wellness Program put on a sexual assault awareness workshop for DYCD workers. The workshop featured myself, a CAS representative, and a representative from the NYC Mental Health Association Disaster Distress Helpline.
The 2 hour “brown bag lunch” workshop began with an icebreaker to put everyone at ease to discuss such a heavy topic. After a brief introduction and a game of guessing the room temperature, the laughter ceased and we moved on to cover a serious topic--sexual assault. My presentation covered the role that sexual assault plays in a violent relationship and how it is used in the cycle of abuse. The objective of the workshop was to give DYCD administrative workers an interpersonal look at sexual violence through the eyes of survivors.
Using my personal story of intimate partner violence we discussed the escalation of violence, coercion, and rape. Activities that followed were geared towards demystifying social speculations about sexual violence, gender violence, and rape. Both male and female participants were asked to list the things either gender does on a daily basis protect themselves from rape. While the men couldn’t think of more than a few ways they protect themselves from violence, women came up with a list of things they routinely do to prevent themselves from being targeted by a sexual predator. These lists were in fact risk reductors, not prevention methods which segwayed to the conversation of how we as a society handle sexual assault awareness.
We concluded the session with a brief exercise comparing the first reaction/ assistance you would give a loved one if they had been sexually assaulted or raped to the assistance one would like to receive if they were the victim of assault. In that exercise we found that while we show compassion and empathy for those close to us, we expect a higher level of care and concern if we were the one victimized. The informative workshop left DYCD staff with the question of how can social services and trauma care providers better understand and allocate their services regarding sexual violence education and services for its survivors.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 24th at 12pm local NYC groups will gather on the steps of City Hall to participate in a press conference held by Manhattan Borough President, Scott M. Stringer. To learn more about Denim Day or to find #SAAM inspired activities, log on to www.denimdayusa.org and join me in the conversation on Twitter @QuasonaCobbLLC.
The Center for Disease Control reports that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. These statistics exclude the 44.6% women and 22.2% men that have have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lives. Sexual violence is not limited to rape, but it includes sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and verbal sexual harassment. Not all cases of sexual violence or assault are reported to the authorities. The Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN) says that an estimate of 54% of rape and sexual assaults were unreported between a span of 5 years.
We have to wonder if more than half of sexual assaults going unreported is a result of societies' rape culture and victim shaming. In recent high profiled cases like the Steubenville case, the nation followed the trial and prosecution of two Ohio male teens accused of raping their seemingly unconscious female classmate while taping the crude acts with others looking on. Two female teens were also arrested for sending the victim threatening Twitter messages, accusing her of destroying lives. There was a huge uproar on Twitter with everyone using the hashtag #Steubenville to discuss the case and their opinion on America's rape culture. Although the teens were convicted for their crimes and talk of the case has since died down, we were confronted with another ugly face of sexual violence, the aftermath.
What happens to the emotional and mental state of the victim after they come forward about the sexual crimes committed against them? Last fall,15 year old California teen, Audrie Pott committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by a group of classmates and having pictures from the assault go viral. Pott's parents knew nothing of the sexual acts committed against her until after her death. Just a couple of weeks ago Canadian teen, Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after her alleged attackers began bullying her and posted photos of the gang rape online to further humiliate her. There are questions of whether or not the police initially handled such serious allegations properly and there has been a recent petition to reopen the investigation. The Canadian police are now looking into the crime nearly two years after the incident took place and young Rehtaeh's life is over.
In honor of Sexual Abuse Awareness Month organizations hashtag #SAAM to announce their contributions in the fight to end sexual violence. Cases like Steubenville are highlighted with many vocal on their positions to end sexual violence and bullying. RAINN now has a online hotline that provides support to victims of sexual assault in conjunction with their over the phone National Sexual Assault Hotline. Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Mary Markowitz, and local organizations are preparing for Denim Day NYC. These groups will stand together wearing denim, in honor of the 1998 case where the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction because the victim wore tight jeans. Their argument was that the victim had to have helped her assailant take them off, therefore consenting. Denim Day has grown into a national movement with rallies around the nation standing in solidarity against sexual violence.
The Denim Day NYC Rally and press conference will take place at noon Wednesday, April 24, 2013 on the steps of City Hall. To join the conversation #DenimDayNYC on Twitter and find out how you can support local organizations.