In 2019, NJCASA embarked on a journey to engage athletic leaders, mental health professionals, and parents and caring adults in preventing sexual violence within their spheres of influence. Here is what we learned.

We know that sexual violence is a pervasive and serious problem. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience some form of physical sexual violence in their lifetime. There are an estimated 1.8 million survivors in New Jersey alone.

We also know that sexual violence is fully preventable, but that not everyone knows how to play a role in shifting the social norms that permit and promote harmful behaviors. Because of this, NJCASA hosted a series of virtual conversations to discuss how we all can promote prevention principles in our everyday lives.

In our conversations, we identified the important roles that mental health professionals play in our society, as well as parallels between the work of these professionals and the work of advocates in the anti-sexual violence movement.  While the field of mental health is varied, helping clients to address and deal with trauma is foundational to the work. In campus and K-12 settings, mental health professionals may also strive to create safe and inclusive spaces for the young people they serve. In these ways, mental health professionals support public health while helping clients deal with adversity.

Professionals in the helping fields know that trauma can manifest in a variety of ways: addiction, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and more. As mental health professionals and advocates, we work to help treat these symptoms, which can result from experiencing forms of violence such as sexual violence, bullying, intimate partner violence, youth violence, and teen dating violence.

In addition to working with survivors to address trauma, mental health professionals must address the potential for violent tendencies among their clients. In our conversations, we discussed techniques practiced by mental health professionals that align with violence prevention principles and practices employed by those working in the anti-sexual violence movement.

Shared risk factors. During our conversations, we talked about risk factors, or characteristics that may increase the likelihood that someone will commit violence. Sexual violence, intimate partner violence, bullying, teen dating violence, youth violence, and child abuse and neglect all have a shared risk factor of poor non-violent problem-solving skills.

As mental health professionals and advocates, we brainstormed ways we can work with clients and patients to improve their ability to solve conflicts in non-violent, prosocial ways. These skills help people limit their potential to harm another person and cause trauma.

Empathy. One of the key tools in developing higher levels of empathy is emotional literacy. One participant shared how they work with clients and patients to help them identify emotions in order to confront their feelings in healthy ways. By supporting clients and patients in their journey to better emotional literacy, we can increase their overall empathy levels and ultimately decrease the likelihood that they will commit violence against another person.

Bystander intervention. Participants shared the importance of creating safe, healthy, and trauma-informed spaces for clients and patients. We discussed how bystander intervention behaviors—such as confronting fellow colleagues when they say or do something harmful—can help foster these kinds of environments. We also talked about the value of holding ourselves and others accountable when we contribute to problematic norms, and how we must actively and regularly work to ensure that these spaces are safe for all clients and patients.

While it sounds like a tall order, violence prevention is possible and can prove simple when we break it down. These straightforward guidelines can support violence prevention efforts and contribute to creating safer communities for all.

To learn more about how you can contribute to a safer New Jersey, visit the resources on our Engaging Communities, Preventing Violence webpage.

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