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November 13, 2012

Investigative Series, Part III: Sexual assault counseling

This is the third installment of a quarter-long series on sexual assault, the second of which was published on November 2. It can be found here

The Student Counseling Service (SCS) is a primary recovery resource for survivors of sexual assault on campus, but dissatisfaction with its short-term treatment model has prompted some survivors to seek sources of support outside of one-on-one therapy.

The SCS provides short-term therapy to students who have paid the Student Life Fee. There is no preset limit on the duration of the treatment, but as part of a short-term therapy model, sessions are not unlimited. In the 2011-2012 school year, the average number of sessions per student patient was 7.1.

A Lasting Solution?

“Oftentimes short-term therapy is a helpful response, and the person will feel they have a better understanding of the problem that brought them in or a feeling that they have the tools to work on it on their own. Students can always come back and speak with us again if something comes up. We have as a major priority [the fact] that we do not have a waiting list,” said Dana Regett, SCS associate director for outreach and education.

But some students have felt underserved by the short-term counseling model in their personal recovery. One third-year sexual assault survivor attended two SCS therapy sessions in spring of 2012, but chose to discontinue her sessions out of fear of over-reliance on a temporary solution.

“He was a great counselor, but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to keep meeting with this person for as long as I might feel that I need to made me not want to go at all. Why would I want to get attached to you if I can’t finish this out the way that I want to finish this out?” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Additionally, counselor emphasis on the actions of sexual assault victims and future preventative methods has been criticized by third-year sexual assault survivor Olivia Ortiz, who sought SCS services in spring and summer quarter 2012.

“[The counselor] would oftentimes frame the sessions in ways like how I could do better in the future. I told her time and time again, these things just happened to me. I didn’t have control. I did everything that you’re supposed to do; I laid clear boundaries....This was somebody that I trusted and was dating for a while, and she didn’t really have a response to that. Her response to those claims was that I should be more careful in the future, and that if I sleep in a bed with a guy, that I should know that he probably expects something,” said Ortiz, who is now meeting with a different SCS counselor.

Regett, the primary clinician on staff to see sexual assault survivors, stated that the Counseling Service tries to emphasize personal actions in order to return a sense of control to the victim.

“I think a part of the recovery process is restoring a full sense of agency to the survivor. At some point in the process, I think that does involve looking at her behaviors that were factors to some degree in what happened. Not in a blaming way, but in a moving-forward way.”

However, SCS session constraints may have contributed to miscommunication, according to Regett.

“Sometimes it’s a long time in the process when someone dealing with a trauma can really look in a helpful way at the event and at their actions. I think the short-term nature of our work—we just want to say a lot of things and we don’t have a lot of time....It’s a complex trauma to understand,” she said.

Beyond the SCS

For survivors seeking longer-term therapy or resources external to the University, SCS connects students to unaffiliated counseling bodies, such as the YWCA, Rape Victim Advocates, Porchlight, and the Chicago Women’s Health Center. None of these organizations currently offers survivor support groups on the South Side, though the YWCA is set to launch an eight-week group at their downtown location on Jackson Boulevard. The SCS also works to help students find local therapists who are covered by their insurance, be that through the University Student Health Insurance Plan or individual coverage.

“Fairly often, students will find the experience of therapy helpful and will want to continue longer than what we can offer at Student Counseling. At that point we have spent a lot of time and energy in knowing therapists in the Hyde Park community and Chicago area who can be good community resources for us to refer students for therapy that can be more open-ended,” Regett said.

Healing through Support

In addition to one-on-one counseling services, the SCS offers an annual sexual assault survivor support group convened by Regett.

“I went into therapy, but I didn’t feel like it was doing very much for me. But what ended up being a really helpful resource for me and my healing was the survivors’ group on campus,” said fourth-year Amy Bianca Lara, a sexual assault survivor.

The SCS’s 10-week support group, which has been running for the past four years, is usually only offered during winter quarter.

“It was extremely helpful for me because I no longer felt alone in my healing process. Being able to tell my story to a group of women who have suffered similar traumas is very different than telling my story to non-survivors. There is a deep sense of understanding and compassion within the group,” Lara said in an e-mail interview.

The Clothesline Project is another source of support for survivors. A local chapter of a national campaign, the project is led by U of C student group Tea Time and Sex Chats and aims to draw attention to sexual assault through artistic expression. Along with other members of the U of C community, they will create an installation of decorated T-shirts on the quad next quarter, each shirt representing an anonymously submitted experience with sexual assault.

“We want survivors to really feel that they’re not alone; that they have a community that recognizes them; that there are people who have also survived sexual assault, or have been affected by someone they love who has experienced sexual assault, to the point that it’s cathartic for them to share their stories,” said Erika Dunn-Weiss, finance director for Tea Time and Sex Chats.

The SCS remains the U of C’s central resource for assault survivors, and emphasizes accessibility as a core priority. Appointments and walk-in requests are accommodated at their on-campus center, and a counselor on call is also available after hours and on weekends. An informal, drop-in counseling service entitled “Let’s Talk” runs every Friday afternoon at three locations across campus.

The Maroon is commited to achieving as thorough knowledge as possible of all aspects of this issue. If you have information on the history of U of C’s policies with regard to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experiences relating to sexual assault and/or subsequent hearings, please contact us at hannah.nyhart@gmail.com or joycrane7@gmail.com.

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