After her sexual assault, Kristina Cressman had no idea how to cope with constant reminders of the incident—and they were everywhere.
“I'll be scrolling on Facebook and all of a sudden I’ll see a picture of my rapist. And I just don’t know how to deal with that,” she told VICE. “It brings everything back to me.”
Cressman said her attacker was part of her friend group, and after she called him out online, many people took his side. She was devastated. After a year of struggling to cope with the assault, a friend suggested she contact Women Against Violence Against Women, or WAVAW, a feminist-oriented rape crisis centre in Vancouver. WAVAW helped Cressman with filing a police report, and set her up with a case worker. But Cressman wanted help processing the incident and the loss of her support network, so she signed up for their one-on-one counselling service.
Eight months later, Cressman is still waiting. As the only organization offering free sexual assault crisis counselling in Vancouver, the waitlist can be up to 18 months. This is an improvement from previous years, as a recent fundraiser helped the organization raise over $20,000—which allowed them to hire more counsellors and reduce wait times down from two years.
In the meantime, Cressman has been trying to cope on her own.
“I want a way to deal with triggers that randomly happen that cause me to basically relive my whole attack, to learn to trust men again. And a way to deal with when I see their faces and social media,” said Cressman.
In the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements, WAVAW has seen an increase in people seeking counselling to process sexual assault or harassment.
"I think whenever people speak out and they take space and identify as survivors it makes more room for other people to speak out,” Jordan Pickell, a counsellor at WAVAW, said.
“Every time there’s sexual assault in the news we get a huge increase in calls."
Pickell has worked as a one-on-one counsellor and also runs group therapy sessions. While the group therapy can be helpful for people in finding supportive community, she says that having to wait months for the one-on-one can make survivors feel unsupported. For many, it takes courage to ask for help, and then having to wait months can make them feel unsupported or invalidated.
"When people wait a year and a half for counselling, they are in a completely different place. The way they see themselves, they way they are in relationships, and [they have] anger and despair towards institutions who failed to support them,” Pickell says.
While there are other support services available to survivors in Vancouver such as the Vancouver Rape Relief crisis line, WAVAW is the only organization providing free personal counselling to help survivors process trauma. Once a person is enrolled in WAVAW’s program, they usually receive 16 individual counselling sessions, though there isn’t a limit on the number of sessions.
Sambriddhi Nepal, the manager of fund development at WAVAW, said that crisis services are helpful in the short term, but they do not replace the need for individual counselling. She explains it through the analogy of a backpack.
“People who access the crisis line can patch up small tears in the backpack, but counseling support helps you take that backpack off and look at everything inside—it helps you carry that backpack," said Nepal.
As of November 15, 2017, there were 213 survivors on WAVAW’s waitlist for one-on-one counselling. WAVAW receives project funding from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General under the Stopping the Violence program, which funds anti-violence initiatives throughout BC. But a large portion of that funding was cut in 2012, and WAVAW has been struggling to keep up since then.
"Twelve years ago under the previous BC Liberal government we used to have core funding, which pays to keep the lights on—but that was cut for many social service organizations,” said Nepal.
“It was fully agreed the province was responsible for it and they were before, in fact they took away they responsibility, and its not acceptable.”
Compared to other cities in Canada, wait times for sexual assault counselling in Vancouver seem to be extreme. In Winnipeg, a city that the CCPA reports as having a higher than average rate of reporting sexual violence, wait times at a major downtown clinic are almost zero.
Mary-Jo Bolton, clinical director at Klinic Community Centre, says that the wait time for counselling is usually about three weeks—but that is simply due to finding a time that works for both the survivors’ and the counsellor’s schedule.
“We don’t have much of a wait. Part of that is because we use this unique model of staff counselors and trained volunteers counselors, so we have a good capacity to be responsive,” Bolton said.
Klinic has an average of 50-60 volunteers and three full time staff counselors, and receives most of its funding from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. They get donations for small items like clothing.
In Ontario, Hope 24/7 is the central sexual assault crisis centre in the Peel region. This agency is completely provincially funded, and is connected to hospitals in the region in order to provide services to survivors as soon as possible. Their waitlist is about three months for counselling.
Arvinder Lakhi, a social worker at the centre, says that their availability and outreach into the community has proven effective for many survivors.
“The model we use here has [definitely] been the most effective in the way that people who used to be frequent callers for the crisis line were able to come in for in person services and eventually stop having to come in altogether,” says Lakhi.
Back in Vancouver, Cressman is not the only one waiting for counselling and support. She has joined a Facebook support network of survivors helping each other to find resources and just vent their feelings in safe space. Cressman says it helps a little, but ultimately needs one-on-one support.
“It’s definitely been rough not having anyone to speak to,” said Cressman. “At the end of the day [friends] are helpful but they’re not counsellors, they can’t really check in with you all the time. ….most people can’t do that.”
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