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It's Not All Black and White

More than 40 percent of college students suffer from emotional abuse, and more than half of them don’t know how to help themselves or other victims. Despite the numbers, universities across America, including Syracuse University, are working to expand their team and resources to get these students help

Sarah Wolverton is your typical college student: Confident and bubbly with tons of friends and a budding journalism career ahead of her. Just three months ago, though, Wolverton was battling her own insecurities. With her “self-esteem virtually destroyed” after her third (and final) breakup with her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend Max*, Wolverton looks back on the relationship with both relief and trepidation.

“The second time we broke up, I was absolutely devastated — he chose the girl he was cheating with over me — and I became physically ill; I could barely keep food down, I rarely left my bed, my grades plummeted, and I lost about 12 pounds in a month just because I wouldn’t eat,” Wolverton says.

However, after her third breakup with Max on September 4, Wolverton made it her mission not to go down the same route she had before. The next day, she called Syracuse University’s counseling center and scheduled weekly appointments from mid-September to mid-November. “The hardest thing to do was admit that I needed help. I like being an independent person and admitting that there was a problem I couldn’t deal with on my own felt like weakness,” Wolverton says. Although she made a conscious effort to seek help, there were times that Wolverton still caught herself slipping, and at times, she even blamed herself for the abuse. “His constant cheating and lying made me feel like I was in a fog where I didn’t know what was real and what was a lie. Questions like ‘Did he love me? Was I doing something wrong? Am I crazy?’ constantly ran through my mind,” she says.

Emotional abuse is defined as any action — intentional or otherwise, that causes a negative impact mentally, emotionally, or psychologically, according to Chris Kosakowski of Vera House. These behaviors can look a lot like comments, remarks, jokes, criticisms, manipulation and many other things.

Wolverton is just one of many students suffering from emotional abuse in romantic relationships. What’s more, in a survey from, nearly 43 percent of college students said they were in an emotionally abusive relationship(s). The same survey also reports that 57 percent of college students are unable to recognize the signs of an unhealthy relationship, and 58 percent are uncertain of how to help somebody suffering at the hands of emotional abuse.

With over 6.8 million #RelationshipGoals Instagram posts, college students across the country are grappling with the pressure of and challenge of maintaining healthy and realistic romantic relationships. “As the stigma against mental health is decreasing, more and more students are coming forward to seek mental health counseling against these types of relationship abuse,” said Dr. Keith Anderson, an outreach coordinator for the American College Health Association (ACHA).

On the other hand, social media has allowed for many college students and young adults to be open about their feelings and emotions, and therefore, there is less of a stigma associated with seeking counseling for these types of toxic relationships- whether romantic or platonic. Despite the decreasing stigma in social media somewhat related to the rise of social media and technology, there is a downside to the digital world, too. “We know that college students, among others, have experienced bullying and other forms of emotional distress via social media. While social media can have a positive impact for some, allowing them to make connections, etc., it can also pose some problems. For example, people tend to only post their ‘best selves’ on social media, so for some, it can appear that everyone else’s life except theirs is somehow perfect, which can take an emotional toll,” says Dr. Nance Roy, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine and chief clinical officer at the JED Foundation.

As emotional abuse continues to plague society in forms of unhealthy manipulation, sexual harassment, and other harmful actions, Lee Swain, Director of JED Foundation, says it’s essential for colleges to educate and raise awareness on this topic to both peers and victims themselves. “Students should have many avenues of which to report that [emotional abuse]. Not necessarily just victims, but peers, and training them on how to intervene and be supportive of a friend. One of the things we really work on with colleges to promote is this idea that peers need to be equipped with skills to do that, and be aware of resources of which they can refer them to,” Swain says. The JED Foundation is just one of may organizations that work with colleges around the country to “protect the emotional health” and prevent suicide amongst young adults.

In addition to both small and large organizations such as RAINN, Vera House and others, Syracuse University’s counseling center is also available to help students like Wolverton suffering from emotional abuse. Associate director Susan Pasco says the counseling center has expanded their services and created a “specialized team of professionals who are part of the Sexual and Relationship Violence Team, which provide 24/7 confidential services to victims and survivors.” The specialized team consists of six staff members.

Despite increasing their services, the counseling center is still packed with students. With an undergraduate population of 15,252 and a graduate population of 7,232 the ratio of student-to-staff therapists are 1:1,888. On a typical week, the counseling center has anywhere from 250–325 student appointments, and they receive 75–150 calls each day, according to director Cory Wallack. “The Counseling Center is part of a larger team that looks to address emotional abuse, with our partners being the Office of Health Promotion, Student Assistance, Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, and the Title IX office. We try to address emotional abuse through a combination of efforts including education, prevention, and intervention responses. While we provide support services to those who have experienced emotional abuse, our desire is to prevent it,” he says.

Outside organizations such as Vera House work with the counseling center to combat emotional abuse through “training on the topic of relationship violence,” according to Pasco.

Chris Kosakowski is Vera House’s campus prevention educator, and works directly with Syracuse University along with other colleges in Ononodoga County to promote advocacy, education, training, and counseling for sexual and romantic abuse — from physical to emotional. When talking specifically about emotional abuse on college campuses such as SU, Kosakowski emphasizes that emotional abuse can lead to “an escalation of physical violence and how it starts with words and making jokes,” he says. Kosakowski continues, “We’re working towards changing the culture to include it [emotional abuse].”

Anderson notes similar sentiments, and says that a partner who is emotionally abusive towards their significant other has greater potential to move into physical violence. “I do think that someone who is emotionally abusive could more easily then move to other types of abuse, I think a lot depends on what type of response they get to the emotional abuse. If the response is one of intolerance, then perhaps they figure it out more quickly that this type of behavior is not tolerated,” he says.

However, as the statistics suggests, both victims and peers sometimes have a hard time victim identifying red flags in the unhealthy relationships. Experts continue to stress the importance of education and awareness on college campuses. “Educating them [students] on the characteristics of a healthy relationship is just as important as educating them on the characteristics of an unhealthy relationship,” says Dr. Stephanie Hanenberg, executive director of health and wellness at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Swain shares some advice for peers who are looking to help their friend in an unhealthy relationship and gives some tips on how to communicate with them. “It is always important to at first validate how the victim feels or is experiencing. After, the friend should indicate that they are concerned/worried, are there for them, and offer to go with them to talk with someone who can help. It is also best to avoid judgment or critical statements- either about the victim or the abuser, as this can shut down the conversation,” he says.

Despite Swain’s advice to confront the victim directly, Hanenberg emphasizes that confrontation could be ineffective and even dangerous in some cases. “This can be difficult because people always want to help their friends, but there are times when the friend may not want help. We tell students that they can tell their friend they are worried about them and let them know they are there to listen and support them if they are ready to talk about it. They can also share campus resources with the friend and offer to go with them if there is any interest. We never want a friend or classmate to put themselves in danger so we discourage them from confronting the other party directly. Even if the friend doesn’t seek help initially, if they know someone cares about them they are likely to turn to that friend for support once they are ready,” she says.

However, emotional abuse is not as black and white as physical relationship violence, which can leave victims feeling helpless and lacking evidence needed to escape and potentially convict their significant other. “Since it [emotional abuse] is such a grey area, it makes it so much harder to realize it’s happening to you and to treat because it’s different for everyone,” Wolverton says.

Staci Downing, another Syracuse University student and victim of emotional abuse also had a hard time accepting that she was in an emotionally abusive relationship, mainly because there was no hard evidence or proof. “I completely agree that emotional abuse is a grey area. It’s hard to prove to someone that you were emotionally abused, but the things I’ve learned about myself and realized that were completely unacceptable in my relationship have made me believe that what I was involved in was an emotionally abusive relationship,” she says. Although Downing didn’t realize her relationship was unhealthy until it was actually over, she says once she did realize, she had a difficult time recovering, and thinks it’s crucial that colleges are prepared and equipped to help students dealing with the same trauma she experienced. “It’s important that a school is able to provide comfort and support for these types of situations because the recovery period takes time, too,” she says.

Pasco says the Counseling Center has been working for years to ensure they are operating from a trauma-informed approach to better help victims while also preventing emotional abuse. “This approach means having knowledge about the impact of abuse on a victim and knowing how to appropriately support and respond to victims/survivors of abuse. It is imperative that when students disclose that they are experiencing emotional abuse or other forms of relationship violence that they are made aware of their university’s services, resources, and support, including the options for reporting incidents, specialized counseling, assistance with getting no-contact orders or restraining orders, academic and housing accommodations, and safety measures,” she says.

However, institutions have a lot of work in front of them — especially if their goal is to prevent emotional abuse altogether. From educating the student body to ensuring counseling staff, volunteers, and students themselves are trained and educated on the signs and effects of emotional abuse: there is so much more that needs to be done.

“The work is never really over,” Kosakowski says with an anxious laugh.

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