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COLUMBIA - According to the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in every six American women has experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault or rape.

More than half of female survivor’s report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Researcher at University of Missouri School of Medicine, Abigail Rolbiecki said not all survivors respond to the typical PTSD treatment.

Rolbiecki decided to test out a new method called Photovoice on a group of female sexual abuse survivors here in Columbia.

“Photovoice is a collective story telling process where participants are armed with cameras and go into their community to document things they best feel capture their lived experience with the issue that you are studying,” Rolbiecki said.

The Advocacy Coordinator at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center (or RSVP Center), Taylor Yeagle said the symptoms of PTSD vary depending on the person and their experience, but there were some common symptoms.

“Symptoms can include flashbacks to the event, overwhelming sense of fear, or terror or dread, a general feeling of not being safe and a lot of anxiety,” Yeagle said.

Rolbiecki said people have used Photovoice to explore survivorship in sexual assault but nobody had explored the method in a therapeutic capacity.

“This is the first study of its kind,” Rolbiecki said.

Rolbiecki said it was both an individual and group therapy. The individuals would go out and take their own pictures, then meet as a group to discuss what they photographed.

“Everyone says pictures say a thousand words, so photos are important because looking at a photo can help elicit a reaction that words may not create, it can tell a story,” Rolbiecki said. “So having a tangible item to be able to collect yourself and formulate your thoughts and also kind of share an experience or reaction that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to discuss are really important.”

Rolbiecki said she didn’t give any guidelines about what they should be photographing. 

“I didn’t want to tell them what their healing should look like. I really wanted to empower them to be as creative as possible to take ownership of what they wanted to photograph,” Rolbiecki said.

Rolbiecki said the participants agreed a significant part of the study was the process of exposing themselves to their own triggers.

“They found that incredibly valuable, which is actually consistent with that gold standard approach to treating PTSD,” Rolbiecki said. “Exposing yourself to triggers ultimately desensitizes you and reduces the post traumatic reaction to those triggers.”

The participants then made an exhibit with the pictures they had taken throughout Rolbiecki’s study which is currently in the RSVP Center.

Yeagle said advocacy is very important to them at the RSVP center.

“Research shows when advocates are involved in any kind of process with survivors, outcomes are better for the survivor,” Yeagle said.

Yeagle said there’s inherent value in a person being able to share their stories of survivorship. 

“Sexual assault isn’t just something that happens to those people, or a thing that doesn’t really happen. It’s a real thing that happens to people that we know and people who look like us,” Yeagle said. 

Rolbiecki said she hopes her study encourages researchers and practioners to look at more innovative approaches to survivorship and healings, especially ones that allow survivors to reclaim control of their self narrative.

“What I’m arguing is that in order to truly heal, you have to have this opportunity to have post-traumatic growth and this opportunity to make meaning of your experiences, and that doesn’t happen without ownership of your story,” Rolbiecki said.

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