Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations Research Center are evaluating a strategy they created to help keep on campus incidents of intimate partner violence or sexual assault from leading to problem drinking and/or mental health issues.
Katie M. Edwards, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire, said that victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence commonly do not first report the incident to authorities – such as the police, a hospital, or therapist – but rather, they tell a friend or family member first.
“We call them informal supports,” Edwards said. “Those are the individuals who are most likely to receive a disclosure from the victims. They are often the first responders.”
The researchers received a three-year grant for just over $664,000 from the National Institutes of Health. As part of the grant, they will test an intervention that specifically targets young adults who could be the recipient of a disclosure of intimate partner violence or sexual assault.
“What we’re trying to do is give people the skills and confidence on how they can respond effectively to those exposures,” to lead to positive outcomes, Edwards said.
The way an interaction takes place during a disclosure can predict outcomes for the victims. Edwards said that research has documented that if victims receive responses from friends of family members that are negative – such as blaming or shaming or focused more on their own response than that of the victim – that it longitudinally predicts negative behavioral health outcomes, such as PTSD, depression, substance use, or problem drinking.
“The type of social support they receive is predictive of their adjustment outcome,” Edwards said.
The intervention aims to help those who are the recipient of a disclosure increase positive reactions and reduce negative ones, as well as teach self-care to those individuals who are providing that support.
College students were chosen as the target population because of their high rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and problem drinking.
Edwards said that population also has a high incidence of informal disclosure. “People tell their friends – that’s who they tell,” she said. “Sometimes they tell parents or other family members, but friends are usually the first.”
If shown to be effective, the intervention could be adapted and implemented in a variety of settings, said Edwards.
Oftentimes, students who receive a disclosure want to be helpful, but don’t know what to do or say.
“Part of the intervention is helping people match their responses to what is helpful to the victim in that moment,” Edwards said and to offer both emotional and tangible support. Positive examples could be to ask, “What can I do to be helpful?” or to just check in with the victim, to say “I am thinking of you.”
Saying “I believe you, what can I do to be supportive, I care about you, what happened isn’t your fault,” are examples of more positive reactions, Edwards said.
Examples of a negative reaction might be to say to the victim, “You were really drunk – are you sure that’s what happened?” or “Did you provoke him, or did you provoke her?” according to Edwards.
“Disbelief and blaming the victim are the two big ones,” Edwards said. Also unhelpful for many victims, Edwards explained, is when the person receiving the disclosure responds in a way that is controlling, such as to say “You have to go to the police” or “You have to break up with him or I won’t help you,” Edwards said.
The intervention also works on nonverbal skills. “It’s not just about what to say, but how to have empathy,” Edwards said. “If someone is crying – to lean in and get a tissue. They sound like pretty basic things but we often hear from victims that that’s not happening.”
The intervention has guidelines of what to do if the recipient of the disclosure is concerned about the friend’s safety or the safety of others and will help participants to be aware of local resources, such as the local counseling center, to help them be an informed social supporter.