Picking up the pieces after a rape

16:00, Dec 28 2013
Kathryn McPhillips
HELPING HAND: Kathryn McPhillips, clinical manager and psychologist at Help, says rape survivors have to go through individual processes to come to terms with their trauma.

Once justice has been served, it may still take time and years of help before rape victims can pull their lives together.

When a rapist is locked away it can open a door for a victim to move on. But when an Auckland woman's attacker was sent to spend his days in a cell, she was wrapped in guilt and had to learn how to pick up the pieces.

Jane*, 27, spent a gruelling two years reliving the horror of her rape through the justice system. After nine court dates during which she retold her story and was "ripped to pieces", her rapist was jailed for 11 years.

"I had some days where I didn't want to get out of bed because of the guilt that I had, that I had sent someone to jail for such a long period of time," Jane said.

"It's been over a year now [since he was sentenced] and I don't believe that I should feel guilty any more for sending him away. It was a matter of dealing with that and someone saying to me I shouldn't feel guilty because that is what the person deserves for what they've done to me."

Using free counselling services, Jane was able to pull her life back together because she was able to get the reassurance that her feelings weren't out of the ordinary.


"The counselling helped, but it was one of those things where I had to come to the decision [to not to feel guilty] by myself. So many people tell you what to feel but you have to process everything to get to that point yourself," she said.

Kathryn McPhillips, clinical manager and psychologist at Help, which provides support to sexual abuse survivors, said a victim's journey through counselling is an individual process.

"Most people reach for health and wellbeing. It's our internal drive, but some people get stuck and they need a bit of help so that's what we come in and provide. It's not about teaching people what to feel, it's about people wanting to have a good life and making those decisions themselves," she said.

There are three stages in counselling sexual assault victims. The first stage is to help people manage their symptoms.

"What you've got is a nervous system that's going awry because [victims] spent so much time being terrified that everything they feel is heightened. There will be a lot of fear," said McPhillips.

"So what we're doing in the first place is getting those hyper arousal levels down physiologically and helping people manage what is going on a bit better."

McPhillips said that it could take some survivors a few sessions or even a few years to gain back that control.

"You're then working through processing [the attack]; what it meant for them emotionally, what it means for them in their world and what they would like to be different," said McPhillips.

"Some people have their symptoms under control, but they're unhappy, sad and they find they can't reconnect into relationships any more or with friends."

When victims finally sees themselves as a survivor, counsellors help them reconnect with their community and family so that they can "fully reclaim their life again".

But the counselling process is not there to preach to survivors, instead it helps them come up with their own answers to the questions they have about their trauma.

"You can tell people to do stuff, but they might go and do it for the first two weeks - it doesn't stick unless it really comes from them and it's what they want," said McPhillips.

* Name changed to protect identity



The hardest step in changing a rapist's behaviour can be getting them to comprehend what they have done to their victims.

"A lot of the time offenders don't understand," says the country's head prison psychologist, Nikki Reynolds. "But once they do understand the effect they have had they can go through a very difficult time."

Reynolds, the chief psychologist at the Department of Corrections, which runs three treatment programmes a year for adult sex offenders, says it is also extremely challenging for the men to reflect on themselves.

"The emphasis is on what led them to sexually offend and looking at their faulty behavioural and thinking patterns. " she says.

"One of the hardest parts is to talk about the difficult experiences that they themselves have had . . . it can be very painful."

A maximum of 30 men a year can attend the treatment programmes, which run in three centres across the country. The programmes were piloted in 2006, and, although it is too early to have an exact idea of how they have affected reoffending, Reynolds says early indications are good.

Where the general prison recidivism rate is 22 per cent, the Special Treatment Units (which combine figures for sex offenders and violent offenders) had a rate last year of 12.5 per cent.

"There are really good signs. We know we're getting results," she says.

To enter the nine-month programme, inmates must be high-risk, be aged over 20 and have offended against adults - child sex offenders are dealt with separately.

The treatment is both group and individually based. It has three stages, where offenders look at their background, their offending and then work on rehabilitation.

Psychologists also take offenders through offence mapping - which means looking at how they came to rape - to see if there is a pattern of sexual problems or deviancy, if they had a relationship breakdown or other issues such as drugs or alcohol.

Offenders are asked to examine the year prior to their offending and the 24 hours before the rape.

Lastly, the men look at what skills they need to ensure they do not offend again. This means learning empathy and communication, and developing safety skills so that they can recognise negative patterns of behaviour.

Sunday Star Times