Need for support for sexual assault survivors; locally and beyond

The South Peace region is doing better than some other Alberta locales when it comes to wait times for counselling services for sexual assault survivors.

Still, survivors here are looking at a four-month wait time; in other parts of the province, it's more than a year.

The Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS) says funding is needed to shorten wait times, address the complex needs of survivors, help access justice, and provide school and community-based prevention programs.

Locally the problem is not in funding but an inability to find qualified staff, said Jacquie Aitken, executive director of Pace Community Support, Sexual Assault & Trauma Centre (Pace).

Pace is looking for people with a master’s level in psychology or social work with specialized training.

“We need therapists that can deal with complex trauma,” Aitken said.

“The most complex trauma we often find is abuse during childhood.”

Aitken said Northwestern Polytechnique’s social work program has been invaluable when it comes to filling positions.

“We're very dependent on Northwest Polytechnic keeping their focus on the humanities.”

Aitken noted when training is done locally, more people will stay in the area which benefits the overall health of people in the region.

Survivor Elizabeth Halpin says specialized training is essential for survivors of trauma.

“When you have a trauma-informed therapist, you don’t have to painstakingly relive the worst day of your life over and over again in order to get help.

“To be believed and understood right from the beginning of my treatment made all the difference in the world.”

Aitkin stressed the importance of dealing with adverse childhood experiences. “(If we don’t), we are going to be dealing with mental illness and addictions and physical illnesses in a way that is unbelievable.”

She noted Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research has found that physical, sexual, emotional abuse; child neglect; violence towards a mother; addiction or mental health issues at home can all have major effects on children.

“That is why we need to deal with violence and sexual violence, physical violence … and if we do not, we are in trouble,” said Aitken.

AASAS echoes her view, stating that “investing upfront in education, prevention and sexual violence treatment will result in cost savings in the long run.”

Pace and AASAS are calling on residents to write to their local MLA to stress that that sexual assault support services are a priority.

“Sexual violence in Alberta is a crisis requiring immediate action,” AASAS stated in a media release.

The organization said 43 per cent of Albertans have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Aitken noted in rural areas, rates of sexual assault in the family are 3.5 times higher than in urban communities.

The increase in demand for specialized sexual assault services spiked in 2017 after the #MeToo movement, and #IbelieveYou. The pandemic caused increases, according to AASAS.

In other parts of the province, trauma counselling exceeds a one-year wait time, and they have no services in some areas.

“Any wait is unacceptable and can have devastating impacts on survivors,” said AASAS.

Another survivor, Neil Campbell concurs. “The long wait times put lives at risk.”

“Some of the other men I met in group counselling were just barely functioning,” he said.

“You could just see in their eyes they’re defeated; so, when I imagine people like myself and these men waiting for a year or more for counselling, it makes me feel fearful.

“Not all survivors are as lucky as I am; not all of us have the strength to hang on.

“The reality is that not all of us will make it.”

AASAS says the province has provided one-time funding for counselling but there was no new funding announced for access to justice or prevention.

A sample letter is available for those who wish to pressure their MLA on the issue:

Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News