It can be hard to know what to do when someone tells you about a harmful experience, you might be feeling emotional and confused. You don’t have to be an expert, but it can be helpful to know how to respond to a disclosure and where to signpost people for suitable support that meets their needs.
On this page you will find:
You can find support options (helplines, sexual violence agencies) that you can signpost people to on our support page.
It can also be helpful to know what support is on offer at your university. Students should be able to find support from the university in the options below:
- Student Support Services
- Through an ISVA on campus (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor). Their role is to support survivors of sexual violence by providing emotional and practical support.
- Through a staff member trained to support students who have experienced sexual misconduct.
- Counselling services – it’s important to make sure that the counsellor is trained in sexual misconduct.
Try not to put pressure on survivors to report to the police. It’s important that they can make the right decision for them with all the information about their possible options.
If you want to go a step further, you can learn about what happens next when somebody decides to report sexual misconduct. It can be helpful to know:
- What is your university’s reporting mechanism? You can find this out from student services.
- What is your university’s policy, process and timeframe for reporting, support and investigations? This information will normally be within a general complaints or bullying/harassment policy. See examples from Durham University and The University of Bath.
- What safety measures can your university offer? For example, suspending a perpetrator, moving seminar groups, emergency housing? You will probably have to ask about this information directly to find out.
- What sanctions does your university use? For example, disciplinary processes, suspension, expulsion? This information (disciplinary sanctions) should be made available to you as a student, or you may have to ask to find out.
You don’t have to be an expert – but knowing a bit will help you to be more realistic.
Knowing what to say
Below is a guide tailored to university staff to support students when they disclose experiences of sexual misconduct. Students may also find this guide useful.
The guide explains how best to respond to someone when they disclose an experience of sexual misconduct.
A positive response can influence a person’s decision about what they do next, help challenge feelings of shame and guilt, and let them know that they’ve been heard.
It’s important to remember that disclosures can happen at unexpected times.
- It could sound like this – “I want to tell you something… but don’t tell anyone.”
- You could receive a drunken disclosure, this doesn’t mean that you should take it any less seriously.
- You might receive a disclosure where the abuser is in a position of power, or where they are someone you know or a friend.
The three step model for responding to disclosures: Receive, Reassure, Respond
With all these steps, remember to listen and validate the survivor’s experience
- Thank them for telling you.
- Listen. Try not to look shocked or disbelieving.
- Avoid being judgemental.
- Take what they are saying seriously and believe them.
- Remember that a drunken disclosure is still a disclosure.
- Try not to make them feel bad. Avoid saying things like “you should have told me earlier.”
- Stay calm, tell them that they have done the right thing in telling you.
- Acknowledge how hard it must have been for them to tell you.
- Tell them that they are not to blame.
- Empathise – but don’t tell them how they should be feeling.
- Helpful responses include “you are not to blame for the violence or abuse,” “it’s not your fault,” “you have the right to feel the way you do.”
- Don’t interrogate – let them tell you as much as they want to.
- Don’t ask probing questions – it’s not your job to find out “who, where, when?”
- Confidentiality – let them know that if a child or vulnerable adult is at risk, or if they tell you they might harm themselves, or someone else might get harmed, that you will have to let someone else know.
- Be clear about what you can and can’t do.
- Ask what they would like to happen next.
- Ask if they have had any support.
- Ask how you can keep in contact with them safely – is their phone/email being monitored? When is it safest to call? It’s important to know.