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Strength Found: Free Support for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”

— Carl Jung

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is an issue society is well aware of, but it doesn’t get discussed as much as it should. The subject is still taboo for many people and cultures. Despite this, there are organizations generally well-equipped to help children who have survived sexual abuse. They provide access to safe spaces where these children can disclose what happened to them, as well as process and understand their trauma.  

But what happens when those children keep the abuse a secret? They often become adults who face struggles such as substance abuse, homelessness, difficulty finding work and mental health issues. As time goes on, survivors internalize their trauma, often due to fear and shame. It doesn’t help that society generally expects adults to have the mental fortitude and maturity to handle trauma a lot better than children.

There’s a significant gap which exists between adult survivors of CSA and the ability to get the support they need. This is especially true for male adult survivors, which is something Voice Found is now looking to change.

Cynthia Bland, founder of Voice Found and a survivor, says, “I recognized that there wasn’t enough support for adults unless you have a lot of money to hire a therapist. I really wanted to do something so that others going through this journey wouldn’t feel as alone as I did at the time. It was always my goal and vision with Voice Found to be able to develop a program for adult survivors that would reduce barriers to entry and give them access to the power of peer support.”

It’s from this desire to help others with understanding, compassion and hope that the idea for Strength Found was born. 

Clinical Programs or Peer Support Groups?

One of the biggest challenges survivors of CSA face are feelings of loneliness and isolation. They are burdened by a belief that they are alone; carrying the weight of all the pain and trauma. While many survivors have plenty of success with conventional therapy and counselling, there is growing research that peer support groups are also an effective vehicle through which to seek help. For survivors that live in smaller or rural communities, peer support initiatives may be the only opportunity for growth and recovery.

As outlined in A Study of the Benefits, Risks, & Challenges of Peer-Support with Survivors of Sexual Violence in the Province of Ontario (2008) by Mark Patton and Rick Goodwin, peer support groups provide a number of benefits:

  • Emotional support
  • Sharing information, advice and experiential knowledge
  • A sense of belonging and mutuality
  • Learning coping skills
  • Transforming identities
  • Becoming empowered or improved self-efficacy
  • Achieving insight
  • Increased social network, friendship and camaraderie
  • Reduced symptoms
  • Finding hope or positive role models

The Need for More Survivor-Led Programs

There exist many peer support initiatives for a variety of different issues such as medical conditions, addictions, bereavement and mental health, but there is a clear lack of peer support initiatives for survivors of sexual abuse in Ontario and elsewhere.

In the aforementioned A Study of the Benefits, Risks, & Challenges of Peer-Support with Survivors of Sexual Violence in the Province of Ontario (2008), Patton and Goodwin uncovered 13 peer support initiatives in Ontario for survivors. By comparison, there are thousands of groups for alcohol addiction and cancer. 

In a recent survey VoiceFound conducted of 70 survivors in the Ottawa area, 35.71% of respondents said they would be interested in peer support and 44.21% said they would be interested in participating in survivor group discussions. A staggering 80% of respondents said that they would like to go to therapy but could not afford it. In other words, survivors are looking for some type of help but can’t access it. 

This “cost of entry” is another critical barrier for survivors of abuse. They have the desire to seek help but don’t have the funds to make it happen. Survivors often struggle to remain employed, have issues with addiction or rely on social assistance. In a time when the Ontario government is reducing financial resources for survivors, spending hundreds of dollars for peer support is not realistic.  

Lucie Bruneau, Strength Found Program Manager, says, “The power of peer support is unbelievable. Slowly, society is learning to understand and accept it. Even hospitals and other institutions are bringing in peers because they see the value in it.” 

And most peer groups are led by therapists, grounded in clinical approaches. However, there is a growing desire for groups designed and run by survivors themselves. From the study Peer-led groups for survivors of sexual abuse and assault: a systematic review (2020) published in the Journal of Mental Health: 

Thematic analysis revealed that peer-led group-based interventions have a positive impact on participants’ psychological, physical and interpersonal well-being. Participation also presents challenges for survivors. However, there is a mutuality and interconnected benefit between the triggering of difficult emotions due to participation and the healing experiences gained.

How Does the Strength Found Program Work?

In a nutshell, Strength Found is a survivor-led program that provides survivors with support in a safe space. It’s a place where people can push back against the feelings of isolation with others who have gone through similar situations. Through facilitated discussions (online or offline), participants learn about the impact of child sexual abuse and are given tools to develop or enhance positive coping skills. We run groups for male-identified participants and groups for female-identified participants.

Each week, for 15 weeks, a different topic or theme is discussed, which includes:

  • Triggers
  • Moving out of isolation into inclusion
  • Anger
  • Inner child
  • Re-establishing healthy boundaries
  • Sexuality
  • Loss and grief
  • Addictions
  • Flashback and grounding techniques
  • PTSD
  • Neuroplasticity

This can seem daunting for survivors who have just disclosed or are thinking about processing what happened to them. Hollywood often depicts support groups as a gathering of downtrodden people sitting in a circle in a dimly lit basement. For those who are uncomfortable with the spotlight being shone on them, this imagery doesn’t encourage people to seek help from peer support programs. Yet the reality is quite different from what you see on TV and in the movies.

“The beauty of our program is that it provides a safe space; whether you decide to speak up or simply listen in silence. There is going to be much laughter. There will be tears. There will be anger. There’s everything, but you don’t leave with bad feelings,” says Lucie.

With peer support, trained facilitators aren’t here to dictate or give advice. There’s no uncomfortable power dynamic at play in the Strength Found program – every participant and facilitator is on even ground in a safe environment, so each person feels heard and validated. Facilitators are survivors of CSA themselves, so not only do they have a profound understanding of the trauma but they also have the lived experience of processing it.

Providing Support for Men

Cynthia says, “Men who have survived sexual abuse as a child have different needs than women. They experience things a little differently than women do. It’s harder for them to come forward. It’s harder for them to connect with other men, which is why social activity is so important. When we can get survivors together, outside of just sitting in a circle talking about our trauma, participants can experience a lot of growth and understanding about their triggers.”

While both men and women who have survived CSA need emotional support, there are simply very few resources for men. This could be due in part to the stereotype that men are always “strong” and cannot be victims, which can make them feel shame and cause people to disbelieve that they were sexually abused.

Because of the differences between men and women who have survived CSA, Strength Found offers separate peer support groups for people of both gender identities to properly address the unique needs of each group. 

The program for men is led by men who are also survivors of CSA. They understand how to create a safe and welcoming environment that encourages listening, sharing and growth.

Join the Program

We would be thrilled to have you join Strength Found and our supportive and encouraging community. To register, full out this form. If you’re interested in one-on-one peer support and workshops, please contact Lucie at lucie@voicefound.ca for more information.

Alternatively, you can give us a call at (613) 763-5332 ext 3 or 1 (866) 239-0558 (toll free).