This story was originally published in the November 2021 Sexual Health and Safety issue of The DN.

Traumatic experiences can unfold over a matter of seconds, but in many cases they can have echoes for the rest of a lifetime.

Melissa Wilkerson, an advocate in the Center for Advocacy, Response & Education, said when it comes to dealing with trauma from sexual violence, there is no right or wrong way.

“Everyone responds differently,” she said. “There is no ‘If this happens to you, this is how you will respond.’ Everybody’s different.”

Some of the most common mental responses to sexual violence include depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and being unable to eat or be around large groups of people. In addition to mental injuries, individuals may also have physical injuries to contend with. 

“There is no one size fits all,” Wilkerson said. “There’s a whole spectrum of things that someone might be experiencing after sexual violence occurred.” 

Tierney Lorenz, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of the Women, Immunity and Sexual Health Lab, said coercive and ambiguous sexual experiences can also have a negative impact on someone and their well-being. 

“This ambiguity can really cause a lot of issues with people’s thoughts and feelings about sexuality,” Lorenz said. 

Rape, sexual assault and other forcible acts tend to have shorter — but more severe — effects on people’s well-being. More ambiguous experiences, such as coercion or the survivor not knowing if they have been sexually assaulted, tend to have longer lasting effects, Lorenz said. 

But no matter the kind of trauma someone experiences, Wilkerson said it is important to seek help. There are readily available student resources on campus for students who have experienced or are experiencing sexual-related violence or trauma, with two of those being CARE and Counseling and Psychological Services

CAPS, which is located in the University Health Center, is home to a variety of resources available to students, according to Mariah Petersen, the outreach coordinator at CAPS. 

“Resources available to students at CAPS include individual and group counseling options,” she said in an email. “Individual counseling can be a great opportunity to process current concerns, symptoms, trauma and more.” 

One of CARE’s core tasks is to help students navigate their options, Wilkerson said. When someone first comes to CARE, advocates, like Wilkerson, listen to whoever may be visiting them and work as supportive and confidential resources. 

The confidentiality aspect of CARE means that if someone comes and talks with them, they won’t automatically begin a process of reporting to the university, Title IX office or law enforcement agencies. Advocates are there to listen and support, according to Wilkerson. 

However, if someone is interested in reporting and taking those next steps, advocates can assist students by explaining what options are available and what they may entail, she said. 

If someone does want to go to CARE, Wilkerson recommended calling 402-472-3553 to speak to an advocate. Calling helps ensure there is someone available. 

Chancellor Ronnie Green announced intentions to double the number of CARE advocates from two to four as well as offer greater administrative support. Soon, the university will also repurpose Neihardt Hall for use by CARE, the Women’s Center and LGBTQA+ Center.

When meeting with students, Wilkerson said CARE always works at the survivors’ pace. They let the survivors dictate how the sessions work, and advocates can provide input, resources and connections along the way. There isn’t a checklist they go through, she said. It’s all about finding what is right for the person, whether that is counseling or emergency housing. 

In addition to CARE and CAPS, other campus resources include the Women's Center, LGBTQA+ Center, University Health Center and Big Red Resilience & Well-Being. 

Lorenz said it is crucial that friends and family don’t push survivors to go out and do things or report the incident, even if it’s well-intended. What is most important is being a listening ear for them. 

“That can be really jarring to somebody who still may be trying to figure things out,” Lorenz said. “Really try to listen to what they’re saying, and let them do most of the talking.”

Wilkerson said survivors are supported at CARE, and even if CARE isn’t the right place for them, they will help find the place that is.

“I want survivors to know that what happened to them is not their fault and we believe them,” she said. “We believe them, and we’re here to support them.” 

CAPS is available for appointments Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can be reached at 402-472-7450. Students who are in a crisis situation after hours can call the same number and follow the prompts provided.

CARE is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can be reached at 402-472-3553. If someone tries calling the CARE line after hours, they will be redirected to CAPS.