How Can Therapy Help?

If you decide to seek support from a therapist after sexual assault or abuse, you may have some questions. That’s perfectly normal. Working with a therapist can help you deal with some of the challenges you may be facing.

What is therapy?

Psychotherapy, more commonly referred to as “therapy,” is an open, non-judgmental space to work through problems or challenges. In therapy, you may learn new coping skills, ways to deal with your feelings, and strategies for managing stress. You can also explore thoughts that you might not say out loud to a friend or family member.

What should I consider if I’m looking for a therapist?

  • Experience with your issue. If you survived a trauma like sexual assault or abuse, it can be helpful to know that your therapist has experience working with your specific challenges. Ask about their experience working with survivors of sexual assault and how they’ve helped them overcome issues specific to this kind of trauma.
  • Personality. Success in therapy depends on creating an open, honest dialogue with your therapist. It’s often easier to open up when you “click” with your therapist’s personality and style. It’s okay to interview a few prospective therapists on the phone or have a couple of sessions before finding the right fit.
  • Type of therapy. There are different approaches, or theories, of psychotherapy that will influence how your sessions play out. Some forms of therapy involve more talking, while others involve more “homework” or exercises to practice after your session. Some therapists subscribe to a particular theory, while others may blend elements from multiple approaches. Learn about the different forms of psychotherapy from the American Psychological Association (APA) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Who are therapists?

    The term psychotherapist, or “therapist,” is an umbrella term for a mental health professional who is trained to help people who are dealing with challenges in their lives, including recovering from traumatic experiences. Therapists come from different educational backgrounds, including psychology, psychiatry, social work, or counseling, and are licensed to provide therapy services. The biggest difference among these professionals is the type and amount of training they have received. Read about the different types of mental health professionals at NAMI.

    How do I find a therapist?

    • Call your insurance company to find out which therapy providers are covered by your insurance plan. Many insurance websites have a locator function to help find support near you.
    • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1.800.662.HELP (4357) or search for a local treatment center using their locator tool.
    • If you are a student, you may have access to free services through your on-campus counseling center. Many of these resources do not require insurance.
    • Visit centers.rainn.org to find a local sexual assault service provider that can connect you with resources in your area that are prepared to helps survivors of sexual assault.
    • You can also find support from other local resources, such as a community center or faith-based organization.

    A safe, confidential space

    Generally, what you say to your therapist will remain private. Therapists know that in order to be comfortable sharing very personal information, you need trust that anything you share will stay between the two of you. There are a few exceptions to this rule to keep you and others safe. For instance, if a therapist believes that a patient has made a credible threat to hurt themselves or others, the therapist may notify a family member or law enforcement in order to keep everyone safe. Learn more about privacy rules and protections as they relate to mental health through the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Talking about timelines

    Some people are concerned that starting therapy means entering into a lifelong contract. That isn’t usually the case. While there is no timeline for recovering from sexual assault or abuse, you may be able to work with a therapist for a defined amount of time to help you find ways to heal from the experience.

    Therapeutic treatments are designed to give you to tools to structure your life and interact with your environment in a healthy way that works for you. Some patients are ready to leave therapy after a few months. Other patients find a therapeutic relationship to be beneficial and want to continue counseling for a longer period of time. You can, and should, talk about timelines with your therapist. A flexible timeline can help you set goals for recovery and make it easier to track your progress.

    When you’re ready to leave therapy, remember that the door doesn’t have to remain closed. You can always schedule a check-in appointment at a later time or resume therapy if you need it.

    Changing therapists

    You may decide at a certain point that your relationship with your therapist isn’t working out. Maybe you aren’t seeing the progress you had hoped, or maybe you feel that you just don’t “click.” For the sake of your own health and progress, do not abruptly stop attending sessions. Consider the following tips to help you through process of transitioning to new support.

    • First, write out your concerns. Then set them aside for a little while. Review this list later when you’ve had some time to think about it. It can be helpful to bring this list into a session with your current therapist to guide a conversation about your concerns.
    • Communicate with your therapist. Ask to reserve time at the end of the appointment to discuss your concerns. It can seem intimidating to tell a therapist you wish to leave. Remember that they are professionals. Most therapists will be able to give you a referral for another professional that might be better suited for your particular situation.
    • Get a second opinion. If you’re not sure that this current treatment is working out for you, you can seek the opinion of another professional. They may confirm your concerns or they could reaffirm that you are on the right track.
    • Be prepared to retell your story. A new therapist won’t know your personal history. You may have to retell parts of your life that you haven’t addressed explicitly in a while. You are entitled to ask for a copy of your records to share with your new therapist, but it’s likely that they will want to do their own assessment.

    To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse by someone in the medical field and you have questions or need help, visit the Therapy Exploitation Link.

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