I remember the moment my police liaison officer called to say the trial of the man who had tried to rape me was finally over. I stood on the pavement outside my office, squinting into the sunlight, as all the emotions I’d had to keep buried since reporting the crime a year previously suddenly bubbled up and burst out.
“I think I need to talk to someone,” I told her, between sobs. “I don’t know where you can go,” she replied. “Ask your GP.”
So the next day I sat down in front of my doctor, explained what had happened and asked where I could get psychological support.
“Well you’re not suicidal are you, so there’s nowhere I can refer you,” she told me.
We hear a lot of horror stories about what happens to women who come forward about sexual assault – that they’re not believed, or they’re made to feel at fault. But the one I’d never heard, until it happened to me, was how near-impossible it is to get the right support and counselling – and the damage this can cause.
Right now, more women are coming forward about sexual violence than ever – the Rape Crisis national helpline saw a 28 per cent increase in calls the week after the Weinstein allegations broke. However, there is no statutory provider of services for survivors in the UK, meaning access to support is pretty much the definition of a postcode lottery.
The main provider is the Rape Crisis England and Wales network – a collection of independent centres signed up to Rape Crisis’ national service standards. Because of the grassroots nature of these centres, their sizes and capabilities vary hugely – some may have just a couple of staff.
There are also not enough of them. According to Rape Crisis, the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women states the UK needs 166 specialist centres. There are currently only 45 in the Rape Crisis network. Some areas – such as Cumbria – don’t have one at all, and the combined national waiting list for one-on-one support is between five and six thousand people.
Funding is also a struggle. Spokesperson Katie Russell tells me that, although all centres receive central government funding, it takes the form of a year-by-year grant that is never guaranteed to last beyond 12 months.
Right now, more women are coming forward about sexual violence than ever – the Rape Crisis national helpline saw a 28 per cent increase in calls the week after the Weinstein allegations broke
This money doesn’t cover a centre’s full costs either, meaning charitable trusts or local authorities have to plug holes. “Very few centres receive NHS money, which is very strange given the nature of the work,” says Katie. “When a lot of time is spent fundraising, that’s time not spent on providing frontline services or prevention programmes.”
Getting referred to a centre in the first place is another hurdle. Healthcare workers such as GPs are the people most likely to receive a first disclosure of sexual assault, but unbelievably – as I discovered myself – often do not know how to handle this or where to refer patients.
When I contacted all the major professional bodies for this article, including Health Education England and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, none could tell me what training is given as standard. One suggested it may be down to individual NHS trusts and authorities.
“In my experience, it relies on how successful the local Rape Crisis has been in making those connections, or how proactive a healthcare professional is about educating themselves on what services are available,” explains Katie.
It can be devastating to confide in someone who handles it insensitively. Trauma seeps into all areas of your life and doesn’t necessarily present itself as typical depression or anxiety symptoms. Without anyone to recognise or take this seriously, it’s easy for survivors to go their whole lives without receiving the right help.
Of course, it’s possible to access a specialist counsellor through a body such as The Survivors Trust, but again this is a postcode lottery. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy confirmed to me that most counselling qualifications do not cover rape trauma, so visiting a regular counsellor could actually be damaging if they do not understand survivors’ needs. Online peer-to-peer support groups have also grown in recent years, but may not be right for everyone.
There’s no mystery as to why the UK has failed to properly fund these services for so long. Sexual violence is society’s real-life monster in the closet, something that privately haunts many of us while the outside world refuses to acknowledge the size of its existence.
But times are changing. The past few months have seen hundreds of us – often for the first time – open up and share our experiences. And every single person moved to seek help as a result of these discussions needs to be able to access the right support before further damage is done.
I eventually received low-cost private counselling through a charity, which took months to track down. This isn’t good enough. Every single survivor needs to be listened to, supported, and directed to someone that understands their needs. The extent to which we’re currently falling short of this is a national scandal.