Bethancourt and Damianos: Supporting Survivors

by Casidhe-Nicole Bethancourt and John Damianos | 10/28/15 7:30pm

When forensic psychologist David Lisak came to campus in the summer of 2014, he implored administrators and student activist groups to listen to survivors when devising policy around sexual violence. The Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault prides itself on serving as a mouthpiece for survivors, seeking to express their frustrations, desires and hopes to administrators with the goal of fostering a safer and more inclusive campus. We are particularly excited this year about our recently released recommendation advocating for the College to “provide financial support covering the full cost of long-term counseling and psychiatric care for student survivors of sexual violence.”

Sexual violence is more than just a social phenomenon — it is a medical issue. Evidence shows that sexual violence is a source of psychological trauma, ranking higher in studies than sudden death of a loved one, car crashes and combat experiences. Approximately one-third of survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and many others suffer from depressive and anxiety disorders among other neurological conditions. In short, sexual assault is a life-changing event with debilitating effects, and many survivors require medical treatment.

The College does not currently offer long-term psychiatric care for any illness. Within the current framework, Dick’s House simply does not have enough counselors to provide continual care to every student suffering from depression, anxiety, disordered eating, substance abuse or other mental health issues. In fact, the Center for Counseling and Human Development allots students only 10 to 12 free sessions with a counselor per academic year. After that, students are advised to seek outside resources — an infeasible option for many individuals due to the costs of such treatment. Given these circumstances and the traumatic effects of sexual assault, College-funded long-term counseling affirms the experience of the survivor and further seeks to address its effects.

Dartmouth prides itself on its undergraduate focus. For students to succeed and tackle the world’s challenges, they must be not only physically healthy, but mentally as well. Thus, the College has a responsibility to support every single student and ensure universal access to the tools and resources necessary for self-care. By not providing adequate treatment, the College fails to fulfill its responsibility — particularly since many students experience sexual assault on campus, as elucidated in the recently-released results of the Association of American Universities campus climate survey. If the College can not support the needs of students to receive treatment on-campus, easier access to the option of seeking outside treatment would firmly demonstrate that Dartmouth cares about the health and wellbeing of its students. Crucially, it would affirm the experiences of survivors and the gravity of their trauma, while also assuring them that the College is committed to their recovery and their ability to flourish. Additionally, such a resource would add to the growing directory of options for survivors of sexual violence, further exhibiting a commitment to addressing the diverse needs of survivors and fostering a climate of financial inclusivity.

One of the cornerstone outcomes of College President Phil Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative is to “promote a safer and healthier campus environment.” A large part of that plan seeks to address violence prevention, educating the community about sexual and gender-based violence with the goal of cultivating a culture of inclusivity. The College has an equal responsibility to not only prevent this violence, but to also support survivors so they can continue their academic careers happily and healthily.

Such a resource could take form in many ways, such as a partnership with local nonprofits like West Central Behavioral Health. Perhaps the College could provide transportation to these or similar services. While many details must be considered, we believe that the general idea represents a powerful way to help survivors heal. Once implemented, students can access off-campus treatment, free of the substantial financial burden that may otherwise exist.

This is a beautiful vision. It is a safe and caring Dartmouth, one that prioritizes student well-being. We cannot do it alone, and the SPCSA cannot do it alone. So talk with friends, discuss it with administrators and ask for alumni backing. If we as a campus are truly committed to fighting rape culture, then we need to play an active role in making change a reality. Survivors have pleaded for this — and now it is time to listen, provide them with treatment and allow them to thrive.

Bethancourt and Damianos are members of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault.