Photovoice Therapy May Help Treat Sexual Assault Survivors With PTSD & For Many, It's An Empowering Way To Heal

Although the national discussion surrounding rape culture has become more prominent over the last few years, mental health treatment for sexual assault survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is still a budding topic. But here's some good news: An intervention called photovoice may help treat PTSD after sexual assault, particularly for those who constantly feel powerless as a result of having been attacked, according to research at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

A common misconception is that veterans and people who've been through military combat are the only ones who experience PTSD. Not so. Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a terrifying, traumatic event can develop PTSD, according to the health nonprofit the Mayo Clinic. People who have PTSD often experience nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and hypersensitivity to their surroundings. These individuals include victims of car accidents, natural disasters, childhood abuse, and, yes, sexual assault. In fact, a third of all rape survivors experience PTSD, and nearly all women who are raped report symptoms of PTSD within two weeks after the attack, according to the National Center for PTSD. Considering that one out every six women in the United States will experience sexual assault at some point in her life, according to RAINN, it's safe to say that the more treatments for PTSD there are, the better.

With photovoice, sexual assault survivors with PTSD can use photos to internally process their traumatic experiences and share those thoughts and feelings, whether it's fear, anger, guilt, or some combination of those emotions, according to Abigail Rolbiecki, Ph.D., the researcher at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. When photovoice therapy is coupled with traditional interventions for PTSD, the recovery process is easier for the survivors. Additionally, PTSD symptoms are less likely to resurface this way than if the survivors solely go through traditional treatment, which mainly focuses on just reducing their anxiety instead of also empowering them and giving them back their agency.

The term "photovoice" sounds fancy, but it's basically art therapy that involves sexual assault survivors taking pictures with a camera and, through that medium, interpreting their trauma in a way that feels safe and gives them control over their experiences. In Rolbiecki's study, patients discussed their photos in groups and then hosted a photo exhibit to help spread awareness of sexual assault. Her research found that photovoice interventions improved patients' inner strength and minimized any feelings of self-blame or guilt.

I'm no psychiatrist, but it makes sense that different people heal in different ways and that some types of therapy may be more effective than others. Art and being creative in general have long been an outlet for people healing from trauma, and I know I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of writing and taking photos (hence, why I'm a journalist). It's encouraging to know that this kind of creative therapy is now tied to an official term, photovoice, that has entered the medical field (a fitting name, too, if you ask me). Many ongoing photo projects seek to increase awareness of various sexual assault narratives, such as Project Unbreakable and It Happens.

That being said, photovoice is not a new concept and it's not restricted to just medicine. Photovoice is also used for community development projects as well as social change and activism, in which people who are from marginalized populations and face societal or cultural barriers use visual art to document and share their personal experiences with others, particularly policymakers.

Regardless, it's great to know that photovoice therapy exists for sexual assault survivors who have PTSD, and that new therapies are emerging to give survivors the power to heal in whatever way works best for them.

Images: Kristian Karlsson, Thomas Griesbeck, Redd Angelo/Unsplash