Circles of support

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

If you make the trek to 55 Lock St. and take the elevator to the lower level, you’ll find, tucked into one of the building’s odd angles, the new home of Yale’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Center. It relocated here in September from a previous location on the first floor of Yale Health. The new offices are more discreetly located. Inside, they look like any well-furnished Yale waiting room: soft lighting, tables bearing copies of the Yale Alumni Magazine, a water machine bubbling in the background.

Over the past few weeks, these new offices have also been host to a new series of support groups for survivors of sexual misconduct. Such support groups had been offered in the past, according to Dr. Carol Goldberg, Psy.D., director of SHARE, but they had only been formed after students reached out to SHARE. The center now feels that they are able to “promote a service, rather than wait for someone to come to us,” Goldberg said.

To join a group, a potential student participant will first meet with a member of the SHARE staff to assess whether the group would be appropriate for him or her. If so, the student can then decide if it feels like a good fit. The groups are closed, meaning that once a particular cohort has started, no new members are accepted. They meet for six 75-minute sessions, with the potential to extend for six more as the
group decides.

The groups have the potential to bring together a diverse array of students. Often, Goldberg said, “Group members are in different places with dealing with their experiences.” A particular session’s discussion will not follow a set agenda, but will flow in response to group members’ needs. Members do not need to be in individual therapy at Yale Health, nor do the incidents need to have occurred while they were students at Yale. “They don’t need to have defined their experience, their friend’s experience, their childhood experience,” said Dr. Jennifer Czincz, Ph.D., SHARE’s assistant director.

Within the safe space of the group, members can speak freely; SHARE’s staff does not keep records of the meeting, and, of course, all group participants are required to maintain confidentiality. But while students’ experiences are varied, and they are often at different stages of understanding their experience, Goldberg said that students “find it a very important resource to know that they can rely on others.”

The support group model differs significantly from traditional therapy involving just a therapist and a patient. The group also differs significantly from that of Yale’s peer counseling program, Walden. Walden counselors are trained in peer counseling, not psychotherapy; they help callers or visitors explore their issues, not treat or diagnose them. Most importantly, Walden does not create ongoing interactions, nor do its counselors share their personal experiences. A student who volunteers as a Walden peer counselor says that, for many of the students she counsels, “talking to a peer is a great first step,” and that Walden counselors can then help the caller “find the next right step for them.” For some, this student notes, this step “might be professional help”—for others, “talking to people who have experienced what they have” may prove to be most valuable. For survivors of sexual misconduct, support groups might be their first opportunity to connect with a peer who has had a similar experience.

Sean McAvoy, DIV ’11, realized the need for this connection firsthand as an undergraduate resident assistant at Boston College. Peers often confided in him that they had experienced sexual misconduct, and he realized that sexual harassment and assault were under-discussed among his peers. When he came to New Haven to attend Yale Divinity School, he found a similar lack of discussion, even as peers told him about their own painful experiences. On a campus filled with political talk of sexual misconduct, he said it troubled him that the survivors in the YDS community felt like they had “nowhere to turn” on more personal matters. McAvoy became increasingly aware of a pressing need for safe spaces for those affected by sexual misconduct.

This led McAvoy and a friend, fellow Divinity School student Lyvonne Briggs, DIV ’12, to speak with Dale Peterson, YDS’s director of graduate studies, early last spring. Martin was supportive of the idea of offering a survivors’ group at YDS, but in turn referred the two to SHARE, where they passed on their concerns to Goldberg. It was important to McAvoy, who says he “wanted them to know there was a community of survivors” for support.

The discussions that form Yale’s understanding of sexual violence are sure to continue, as well they should—in FroCo meetings, over late-night egg-and-cheeses, and through mid-class Gchats. But those discussions that occur in the privacy of the offices of SHARE among a circle of allies are as, if not more important to those who participate. They provide a much-needed safe space for healing and reassurance that survivors are not alone.

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