MUSC study offers free therapy for sexual assault survivors

A study now underway at the Medical University of South Carolina aims to get sexual assault survivors the help they need — all for free.
Published: Aug. 15, 2023 at 5:04 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 15, 2023 at 8:56 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Sexual assault can leave long-lasting trauma and profound impacts on survivors’ mental health, but a study now underway at the Medical University of South Carolina aims to get survivors the help they need — all for free.

The RESTART study was created about a year ago by Dr. Christine Hahn, a psychologist at MUSC, and it was designed to help women who were recently sexually assaulted.

Through the program, survivors get free therapy to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol misuse, both of which, Hahn says, are common following a sexual assault.

“Oftentimes post-traumatic stress and alcohol misuse are treated separately instead of together, but we know they go hand in hand,” she says. “After a sexual assault, oftentimes people can’t sleep, they’re being reminded of the trauma, they can’t relax and they’re just trying to figure out how to cope, and so for some people they might turn to alcohol. We want to help them with those symptoms so that they feel like they have the resources to cope without needing to drink to get through.”

The program involves five free therapy sessions where survivors write about their sexual assault and the impact it has made on them. They’ll also be taught coping skills.

“It was really motivated by my work in the past with sexual assault survivors who had been suffering for years and years with post-traumatic stress and wanting to see if we could offer something that’s more accessible and briefer,” Hahn says.

Attending the therapy sessions is very flexible for participants compared to traditional therapy options, according to research assistant Anna Foster.

“It’s really hard to get therapy,” she says. “The waitlists are really long, it’s expensive and people don’t have the time in the day. This study is not like that at all—we’re flexible with time, we don’t work just within 9-5 hours. We accommodate people’s time, and we can do virtually or in person.”

The hope is to give women resources so they don’t have to turn to alcohol, and the study has seen good success so far when looking at the 10 women who were in phase one of the study, Hahn says.

“We saw on average really large decreases in traumatic stress and decreases in drinking after people did the therapy,” she says. “And everybody completed the therapy. It’s really hard to reach out for help after a trauma like a sexual assault, so this is a good sign that this therapy is tolerable and that survivors welcome it.”

The proof of the success is in the data, Foster says.

“When people come in, they typically have very high PTSD scores and then at session five, they have scores that barely even meet PTSD diagnoses,” she says. “Then again at 6 months, it’s even lower.”

This latest phase of the RESTART study includes up to 54 survivors. Hahn says they’re looking to help women who have been sexually assaulted in the last 6 weeks and who also drink alcohol. If you participate and complete all the therapy sessions, you also get paid up to around $470.

To see if you’re eligible for the study, call 843-806-7724 or visit MUSC’s screening website.