The pandemic has been physically, emotionally and mentally taxing on most of the population, but especially for survivors of sexual violence who were feeling isolated prior to the lockdowns.
Services were already in high demand at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region before the pandemic took hold in mid-March. But when COVID-19 hit, calls for support escalated even further.
Sara Casselman is the Executive Director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre. Despite planning for the worst, she never expected to shift their entire centre to virtual support through Zoom and phone counselling.
“I certainly never thought I’d be leading an organization through a global pandemic,” Casselman said. “It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t even cross your mind as being a reality. I remember a few years ago when I was updating policies, I wrote a disaster relief policy that covered off if there was a global pandemic.
“At the beginning of this, I remember pulling that out and going: ‘I can’t believe I’m using this policy.’”
SASC released their numbers from the last quarter, and calls to their crisis line and requests through chat support rose by 25 percent compared to last year. Individual counselling requests rose by 55 percent, women reaching out to the Family Court Support Program ballooned to 158 percent, and workshop participation skyrocketed by 312 percent compared to the same quarter in 2019.
There is currently a waiting list of approximately 140 people and growing at the SASC.
“Especially when you’re looking at that group and workshop participation, I think it really speaks to the fact that survivors are feeling so isolated and really needing support in general and peer support right now,” Casselman said.
“Our motto has always been: ‘You are not alone, a promise to survivors.’ Isolation and feeling alone is always something survivors have struggled with. Over COVID, what we’re seeing is that’s magnified.”
Casselman remarked it’s been a perfect storm of factors leading to the strain on services at the Sexual Assault Support Centre. She said there’s been a steady growth in the number of police reports of sexual violence over the last five years.
Consider that increase in addition to the Me Too movement which broke through in late 2017, then factor in the pandemic, and it's easy to see why there's such a need for counselling and support.
Not only are individuals coming forward for the first time at an astonishing rate, but SASC saw nine times as many previous survivors reach out for help during the pandemic.
“Folks who were dealing with the aftermath of sexual violence in their life reached a tipping point with the pandemic,” Casselman said. “What we also know from research is gendered violence, sexual violence, domestic violence, increases during wars, natural disasters and pandemics.
“That was one of the first things that was really clear to our sector when we were heading into this; that we should brace ourselves for an increase.”
In recent years, the number of public cases involving high-profile celebrities like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Jian Ghomeshi have led more survivors to come forward and share their story of sexual violence for the first time.
“Folks just started reaching out more and more, and then Me Too hit in October 2017 and it’s like the floodgates opened,” Casselman said. “We were flooded with calls for support. Our waiting list grew from 35 to 40 people, to an average of 140 survivors on our waiting list at any point.”
The Sexual Assault Support Centre was inundated with requests for support through the pandemic, but they’ve also been floored by the community’s support in the pandemic's wake. Whether it was a $40,000 donation from Communitech, or support from the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation, to monthly donors, every bit helps.
SASC typically hosts a gala every November as their primary fundraiser, which was cancelled this year due to COVID. Thanks to community support, they held a Halloween virtual fun run which raised $43,000, nearly equalling what they would’ve raised at their gala.
Casselman wishes that one day we live in a world free of oppression and sexual violence, but she realizes that as long as there are survivors, places like the Sexual Assault Support Centre need to exist.
These organizations act as a guiding light for survivors of sexual violence. At the very least, she hopes anyone reaching out won’t have to wait to get the help they need.“I wish that they could take a call in the office and see what it’s actually like to talk to a survivor who’s reaching out for support, because I actually think they would be moved to donate, and to tell our politicians that we need funding for the centre.”