Confidential Support Team offers ‘first stop’ for students impacted by sexual assault, relationship violence

Helen Wilson
Helen Wilson

Helen Wilson recently became director of the Confidential Support Team (CST), a Stanford center that offers support and counseling to students impacted by sexual assault and relationship violence, including domestic abuse, intimate partner abuse, stalking, and sexual or gender-based harassment.

The CST is jointly sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine and by Vaden Health Center. The team originated in early 2015 (then called Confidential Sexual Assault Counselors) to offer a safe, confidential way for students to receive emotional support and guidance as well as help in navigating the other on-campus and off-campus services related to sexual assault.

The team was created as a centralized hub to help students determine next steps, access resources and receive brief or long-term counseling. CST counselors are protected by clinical licensure that allows them to maintain confidentiality while addressing an individual student’s needs in the aftermath of an assault.

Wilson has been part of the Stanford community since 2012; she is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine. She is an expert in the effects of trauma across the lifespan, with particular interest in working with individuals in adolescence to early adulthood. She received her PhD in clinical psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and completed fellowships at the Yale Child Study Center and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research on the intersection of trauma and health risk has received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Wilson fielded questions from Stanford Report about the Confidential Support Team and how it supports Stanford students.

What does the Confidential Support Team offer students?

CST is a free, confidential resource created to provide an initial point of contact to help students navigate the aftermath of sexual assault or relationship violence. We are different from other sexual assault resources on campus in two important ways. First, we do not have the obligation to report a student’s experience to the Title IX office. This allows us to focus on the needs of the individual student and allows the student to maintain control over the situation without feeling pressure to make an immediate decision about what to do. Second, we can provide a range of supportive services from immediate response to ongoing therapy for emotional distress related to trauma.

We offer confidential supportive services to meet the varied needs of survivors, as well as friends, family, faculty, staff and other Stanford community allies. Some students may only need one or two meetings to talk about options for making official reports or accessing other resources, while other students benefit from continuing to meet with a counselor for ongoing emotional support. For students who experience significant distress, such as posttraumatic stress or depression, we are able to offer longer-term treatments as well as connections to other community or campus resources including the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Who are the other members of the team?

Our team includes an administrative assistant, Melanie Pace, and two counselors, Jen Durham Austin, LCSW, and Nicole Wernimont, PsyD.

Melanie is likely to be a student’s first contact with CST. She can provide information about CST’s services by phone or in person at Rogers House, as well as schedule appointments and connect a student directly with one of the counselors.

Jen Durham Austin has been with this service since it began in early 2015. She is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in trauma-informed and LGBT-specific care. Nicole Wernimont, a licensed clinical psychologist, recently joined the team. Nicole has particular interests in women’s mental health, psychology of gender and posttraumatic growth. We all have training in trauma-informed care.

What kind of experience can students expect with the Confidential Support Team?

During business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, a student can reach us through our main line, (650) 736-6933, or hotline number, (650) 725-9955, or visit us at Rogers House, near Tresidder Union, in person.

We have same-day appointments available for urgent situations, and students can connect directly with a counselor by phone. After hours, the hotline is answered by an on-call provider from Counseling and Psychological Services at Vaden Health Center, who can provide immediate support and also schedule a next-day appointment with CST.

At the first meeting, a CST counselor explains our role as licensed confidential counselors and provides information, referrals and emotional support. The counselor may assess an individual’s safety and inquire about immediate needs. These initial visits are typically 30 to 60 minutes in length. A student may end the visit at any point and does not have to disclose information she or he does not wish to share.

At the end of the appointment, the CST counselor will develop a plan of follow-up with the student. We view these appointments as collaborative meetings during which we work with the student to determine individual needs and the steps needed to meet those needs. If longer-term counseling is part of the plan, we complete a more detailed assessment of background, history and current symptoms. We talk to the student about evidence-based treatments and work collaboratively with the student to create a tailored treatment approach.

What should people know, that they might not, about these issues?

Victims of trauma, such as sexual assault and relationship violence, experience a range of reactions and have varying needs for support.

For some, significant psychological symptoms, such as posttraumatic stress, depression or substance abuse, may develop in response to a trauma. And for some, these kinds of problems can persist. However, not every trauma results in such problems, and some students are most in need of practical guidance such as how to make a report to the Title IX office or get a medical exam. Others simply want to talk to a caring professional who can keep the conversation private and confidential.

Our aim is to provide a range of confidential services to help meet the range of student needs.

In addition to working with individual students, the CST is available for consultation with student organizers and groups who wish to host survivor-friendly events. We can help translate our clinical expertise in trauma-informed care to developing programs that optimize benefits for participants and minimize unintended negative consequences. We can also be present on-site during such events to support any participants who become distressed, while maintaining confidentiality.

I hope we ultimately reach a point when we don’t need a service like CST at Stanford. But until then, we are here as a confidential “first stop” for students who have experienced sexual assault or relationship violence or wish to help others who have had these experiences.