Empowering Survivors, Curing Stigma: Trauma-Informed Advocacy for Survivors Living with Mental Illness

This May marks the 69th anniversary of Mental Health Month in the United States. The purpose of Mental Health Month is to increase awareness of mental health issues and to empower individuals who live with mental health issues; to challenge stigma; and to help those who suffer heal emotional and psychological wounds.[1]

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence can have significant mental health consequences for survivors.[2] As attorneys and advocates who work with survivors, it is our responsibility to be aware of the signs of trauma in our clients, to ensure that our representation does not worsen the harm done to a client or create additional harms, and to zealously advocate on our clients’ behalf. Many, if not most, survivors who live with mental health, substance use, or trauma-related issues are fully capable of engaging in survivor-driven representation. These clients can make informed decisions about their case, and can understand, deliberate upon, and reach conclusions about matters affecting their own well-being.[3]

Wellness Cairns

There are myriad ways that advocates and attorneys can challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness and offer concrete assistance to survivors who have experienced trauma resulting from multiple victimizations. Attorneys for survivors who are dealing with mental health issues can assist clients by:

  • Recognizing that survivors may be unable to recall all the details of the abuse or violence;
  • Providing options and the time and space for survivors to make fully informed decisions;
  • Validating the survivor’s feelings throughout the process;
  • Being responsive to a survivor’s requests for information and support, even if she asks for the same information several times;
  • Partnering with survivors to identify alternative coping strategies if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors;
  • Finding supports for developing alternative or additional coping strategies;
  • Connecting survivors who are experiencing a mental health crisis with a trusted mental health referral/resource;
  • Offering support to survivors who are using alcohol and/or drugs by safety planning and strategizing to the greatest extent possible at the time (including assessing risks and developing strategies that mitigate the risks posed by alcohol and drug use) and encouraging them to contact you again;
  • Gaining an understanding of the ways in which a client’s unique challenges may impact her ability to engage in the advocacy process;
  • Tailoring interviewing and counseling approaches to meet the needs of and maximize the self-determination of each individual client;
  • Developing a basic understanding of trauma-related and mental health conditions that survivors may experience;
  • Being skilled in listening and asking questions to understand a survivor’s perspective and needs; and
  • Understanding what information and options to offer to meet those needs.[4]

Survivor-driven advocacy requires that attorneys tailor their advocacy approach to meet the unique needs of survivors. It is within the context of a respectful, survivor-driven relationship that lawyers can provide opportunities for survivors experiencing trauma and mental health challenges to access the resources they need and to exercise greater control over their own lives.


Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors (PES) at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. You can reach Janice and the rest of the PES team at legal@vsdvalliance.org.


[1] Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may (last visited May 4, 2018).

[2] See, e.g., the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/ (last visited May 4, 2018).

[3] See, e.g., Comment 1 to Rule 1.14 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, available at http://www.vsb.org/pro-guidelines/index.php/main/print_view (last visited May 4, 2018).

[4] See Seighman, Mary M., et al., “Representing Domestic Violence Survivors Who Are Experiencing Trauma and Other Mental Health Challenges: A Handbook for Attorneys” (2011), available at http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AttorneyHandbookMay282012.pdf (last visited May 4, 2018).

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