Not long ago we went to trial on an aggravated assault case. The victim was a sweet, quiet, 21-year-old man who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child with his family. We got to know Miguel (not his real name) and his family well during the course of the case and in preparation for trial. He had monumental challenges, including unsupportive family members who were being pressed by the defendant not to cooperate with the prosecution. He had immigration and poverty issues, no transportation, and a history of family substance abuse from which he was trying to free himself—all in addition to the trauma of an assault that nearly killed him. In spite of all these issues, Miguel was compassionate, good-natured, loving, and forgiving with his family.
One family member, his aunt Mary (not her real name), was genuinely concerned for him. They had been very close during his childhood, and she told me Miguel was not himself since the assault. She hoped I could convince him to see a counselor. I had several conversations with him about his emotional health and the impact of this trauma. During each talk, he would smile and assure me he was doing well—getting better, in fact! He was starting a new job, and his immigration attorney and I were making progress on his visa. I remember feeling uneasy about his mental health, although in our conversations he always maintained that he was doing fine. I sent a list of counselors in the Houston area to his immigration attorney, hoping that Miguel might be more revealing and receptive to help offered by a man.
Three months after the trial, I received a voicemail from his aunt. She was frantic, screaming that Miguel had taken his life the day before, and she begged me to call her. What she told me was just what I’d feared: Miguel had grown increasingly depressed, his family continued to be unsupportive, and he had asked his aunt probing questions about another family member who had committed suicide. I was devastated at the thought of him in so much pain but unwilling to ask for help. I questioned my time with him, remembering my gut instinct that things were not right. I thought about my attempts to engage him. What else could I have done for someone who would not let me in?
How men are treated differently
The role of a victim service provider is a challenging one in many ways, and I most often feel perplexed in my work with young men. My clients aren’t voluntarily seeking my services but rather are compelled to visit our office by circumstances often out of their control. They may or may not feel traumatized by the precipitating event, but trauma is rarely their motivation for interacting with victim services in a district attorney’s office. As I’m guiding victims through the criminal justice system or preparing them for trial, I attempt to engage them in a discussion of how the trauma has impacted them. I assess for and provide any additional support they need to help with their healing. Female victims almost universally open up and discuss the emotional, spiritual, and physical impact of the crime and accept my support or counseling referrals, but men have been much more challenging. There are exceptions, of course, but in most cases they only give me a small peek at their pain—yes, this has been hard, and yes, they feel very angry. But beyond that I typically hear what I heard from Miguel: “I’m fine.”
Women have made monumental progress moving beyond prescribed gender roles in the last several decades, but men continue to be constrained. Society perpetuates the message that emotional vulnerability in men is a weakness, that men should be strong and self-reliant. Anger is acceptable because it has a very masculine energy, so men are socialized to hide vulnerability and to channel emotions through anger or to deny emotions altogether. This is tragically limiting when victims are trying to process trauma.
I once heard the sound of a car crash near my apartment and went outside to see if someone might need help. Several bystanders were already at the scene, comforting a mother who was wailing and kneeling beside a young girl, who was lying on the ground with a bleeding head injury. Standing about 10 feet away was a boy who looked about 8 years old and who was obviously with the family. He was frozen and standing by himself, so I approached him. He was trembling and as I spoke to him, tears rolled down his face. I could imagine how terrified he was, seeing his sister injured and his mother so beside herself with fear for her daughter that she completely forgot his presence.
As I sat with him waiting for the ambulance, an older woman bystander walked up to the little boy and said, “Stop crying now—you need to be strong for them. You’re a big boy.” I wanted to say, “She’s wrong! You’re scared and that’s normal! If you need to cry, cry. I’ll stay with you.” But the woman was standing near and I didn’t want to contradict her. I wish I had, though, because one of the greatest tragedies in that situation was the message that boy received. He learned that even if your sister is lying in the street bleeding, he wasn’t allowed to feel anything other than stoicism, because that’s what others needed from him.
Best practices for men
After Miguel’s death, I’ve thought about what I could have done differently and how I might adjust my approach in working with men in trauma. I’ve considered my cases where I have a very successful relationship with the victims and also cases in which I felt the victim shut down, in order to gather and implement my own best practices. I doubt I can change years of social programming, but I can model, encourage, and create a safe space for exploring vulnerability and for real healing.
My current best practices include:
• providing education around trauma and its aftermath and exploreing victims’ coping skills. Find out their usual means of handling challenges and encourage them to apply their coping skills in this situation. Help them develop them additional ways of coping;
• helping victims engage their support system. Assess their supportive relationships, and discuss to whom they can turn when they need help or someone to talk to. If they’re interested, include members of their support system in your work together. I encourage victims to bring a friend or family member to our meetings or to court;
• If the family of the victim is also working with you, they can be a good source of collateral information. While confidentiality limits what you can share, the family will often discuss how they think the victim is doing and whether they have any concerns. Educate them about red flags and teach them ways to support the victim or seek help if needed;
• providing the victim with a list of resources for counseling, support groups, and online information and support;
• actively assessing for suicidal thoughts and knowing how to intervene appropriately;
• providing material to the victim on a range of trauma-related topics. I find printable material on the internet, copy it from workbooks, or create it myself; and
• seeking support and consultation for yourself when you feel uncertain.
Would some other creative approach have helped me reach Miguel? I look back at my notes and see many attempts from me, his immigration attorney, and his aunt. Miguel’s decision was his own to make and no matter how creative, insightful, and out of the box I could have been, it may never have changed the outcome.
For all the young men and other victims we work with, we do our best to assess, provide resources, engage, and counsel, but the decision to accept the help offered is entirely in their hands. This is challenging to remember when we feel unease or fear that our client is in distress but not ready to resolve that distress.
I attended Miguel’s funeral, and it was shocking to see him in the casket. I battled many emotions as the family gathered around him, crying, praying, and cradling his body. They expressed tremendous gratitude that I’d come to pay respect to him, and as I said goodbye, his sister pulled me aside. She thanked me for all I did and hugged me. She told me that Miguel had a special place in his heart for me and for the prosecutors who worked with him, that we had been very kind when he was having such a hard time.
This is how it goes with victim services, isn’t it? Some cases you pour your heart and soul into and the reward is tangible and great. You find a homeless victim a place to live; you help another victim apply for crime victim’s compensation to reimburse $5,000 for lost wages; another victim hugs you and says, “You saved my life—I don’t know what I would have done without you!” Then there are other cases that end badly, like Miguel’s. Through his sister, though, I heard his appreciation for our work together: “My life was brutal, but somewhere in that path I met you, and you cared about me.” That is something.