Start by Believing

How to talk to a victim of sexual assault
April 26, 2016
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers declared April 12 “Start by Believing’’ Day in Colorado Springs. Pictured on the steps of Colorado Springs City Hall are (left to right): Elizabeth Rupprecht, Forensic Nurse Examiner; Kristy Bootes, TESSA Advocate Megan Lechner, Forensic Nurse Examiner; SherryLynn Boyles, TESSA Executive Director; Rebecca Parsons-Gerstel, Forensic Nurse Examiner; and Alana Bernstein, a nurse at UCHealth Metro Denver.

Victims of sexual assault have a better chance of healing mentally and physically when the first person they tell about the assault is a believer and not a blamer.

Too often, after someone reveals that she or he has been sexually assaulted, the immediate response is negative: Why were you out that late? How much did you have to drink? What did you think was going to happen?

Changing a culture that often blames the victim for the crime is the impetus behind a public service/safety campaign called Start by Believing.

Research shows that victims of sexual assault heal faster and move on with their lives sooner when they are believed, said Megan Lechner, a forensic nurse examiner in Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department.

“Start by sitting down and listening to them,’’ Lechner said. “Tell them, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you. Do you want to talk about it? How can I help you; how can I support you?’ ’’

Research shows that a kind and compassionate response is good medicine. Victims are more likely to seek medical help, report the crime to law enforcement and seek help from community partners. Bottom line, there’s a better outcome for victims.

Lechner and other forensic nurse examiners from Memorial, which has the only FNE program in southern Colorado, appeared recently before the Colorado Springs City Council. Mayor John Suthers signed a proclamation declaring April 12 as “Start by Believing Day’’ for this year and future years.

The public service/safety campaign, created by End Violence Against Women International, is similar to other public education campaigns aimed at changing culture; quitting smoking, for example.

Last year, Memorial treated nearly 700 patients who had been sexually assaulted. Most of the victims are women, though men also seek treatment for sexual assault, Lechner said.

“It is difficult to talk about sexual assault. You can see patients when they come in to the hospital are very anxious and nervous. When they leave, the transition, you can see that they feel better. They know they’ve been checked over – they know their body is okay – and that helps them emotionally,’’ Lechner said.

The “Start by Believing’’ campaign, Lechner said, is about health. The campaign teaches laypeople to respond by kindly asking questions of the victim: “Do you want me to take you to the hospital? Do you want to call the police?’ You are giving that power back to them and letting them know that you are there and you support them,’’ she said.

“You’re asking things like: ‘How can I help you through this? What can I do?’ ’’

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.