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Odyssey House Survivors Group: An empowering journey to deal with childhood sexual abuse
A staggering 90 per cent of adults – men and women – seeking professional help for alcohol and other drug dependence and/or mental illness have experienced childhood sexual assault, according to the Council of Social Service NSW.
Yet many people, particularly men, are frightened of being judged and find it very difficult to reveal their abuse. In fact, men are just as likely as women to experience sexual assault as children. The challenge is to encourage survivors to speak up so they can receive help to deal with their trauma and rebuild their lives, and avoid relapsing into substance misuse in an attempt to block out their feelings and self-medicate emotional pain.
The impacts of childhood sexual abuse are devastating and may have life-long negative consequences.
Low self-esteem, poor self-worth, shame, self-blame, guilt, grief and anger are common, as are mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and phobias. Survivors may experience relationship problems, fear becoming a perpetrator themselves, question their sexuality, have trouble regulating their emotions, and engage in self-harm such as substance misuse, eating disorders, mutilation or suicide.
In recent years, more male survivors of childhood sexual abuse have been coming forward for help, encouraged perhaps by high-profile cases. This has enabled Odyssey House (where 70% of clients are male) to seek funding for specialised services.
The Odyssey House Survivors Group was launched in 2010 and is based on the Masters work of Chief Clinical Officer, Sharon Mestern. During their residential rehabilitation program, male and female clients can participate in the unique eight-week course with up to five other clients of the same sex, with weekly group sessions facilitated by two trained counsellors.
Based on ‘transformation learning’, the sessions encourage healing, personal growth and action-oriented change using proven psychological approaches such as acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.
The aim is to free survivors from the restrictive bonds of their abuse.
Clients are made aware of the common tactics perpetrators use to enforce children’s compliance and normalise the abuse, and how this – along with the assault itself – has moulded survivors’ beliefs about themselves.
Through information, discussion, sharing with other survivors and practising skills, clients are assisted to acknowledge their experiences, critically reassess and question previously held beliefs and feelings, separate themselves from the problem, see the abuse in a new light, and hand back responsibility to the perpetrator.
They identify their strengths and personal qualities and create a new ‘story’ about who they really are, their true beliefs and values, and what their life stands for. Clients also learn a ‘toolkit’ of skills and develop an action plan to enjoy healthy relationships, take care of themselves and others, and lead productive lives without needing alcohol and other drugs to cope.
While individual counselling is also provided, the validation and affirmation from Odyssey House Survivors Group members is very empowering. It enables clients to help themselves while helping others, explore shared experiences, reinforce fresh ways of thinking and interacting, promote a novel sense of worth and celebrate the ‘new them’. The experience of being supported and accepted by others within the protective, compassionate environment of the group and the wider Odyssey House community has profound therapeutic benefits, setting the stage for a new and happier chapter in people’s lives.