News / Edmonton

Edmonton Heroes: Sexual Assault Centre's director Mary Jane James on weathering spike in demand

The centre had helped 1,100 new clients by Nov. 1 this year, compared to 882 all of 2016

Mary Jane James is the Executive Director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Mary Jane James is the Executive Director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

Waiting lists at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton are at an all-time high as survivors come forward in record numbers.   

SACE executive director Mary Jane James attributes much of the recent spike to the #MeToo movement, which has leveraged social media and news media to encourage people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment to talk about it.

“People are finding, perhaps, strength in numbers, and finding that when they have a safe place to disclose to come for help, they’re more likely to do so,” James said.

“The issue that we’re having is, because of the increase in calls to our supportive information line and requests for counselling, our capacity is just not meeting the demands.”

SACE is the only facility in Edmonton that offers sexual assault trauma counselling free of cost.

James said the centre’s 24-hour crisis line is getting 10-15 calls daily, compared to 8-10 last year, while wait lists for trauma counselling have gone from 4-6 months up to eight months.

SACE had helped 1,100 new clients by Nov. 1 this year, compared to 882 all of 2016.

Numbers have been especially on the rise since September.

The increased media attention has also reopened old wounds for people who suffered abuse years or even decades ago, and are now coming to SACE to work though events they had not thought about in years.

“That’s very, very common,” James said.

“Something will trigger, and all of a sudden they’re back in that place where they were when that trauma occurred and they realize that they are not able to manage those feelings on their own.”

Others who seek out services are still children. About 30 per cent are under 18, and SACE has clients as young as three.

James does not want the long wait lists to discourage people from reaching out, noting SACE will still offer one or two prompt support sessions for someone with an urgent need who is on the list.

On average, though, she said a person will need 15 individual counselling sessions to get past the trauma and to heal from the abuse they suffered.

“Trauma of this magnitude is not something that just disappears overnight,” she said.

The help is crucial, especially for those who can’t afford to go elsewhere. Some clients have told James that SACE saved their lives.

Those who can’t get help when they need it might resort to other, more destructive ways of coping, such as alcohol, drugs and self harm.

SACE is always looking for volunteers and donations, but James said the most meaningful way to help is to stop blaming victims and believe people who have experienced sexual assault.

“We all know someone who’s been impacted, whether we know it or not,” she said.

“As a society, we need to wrap our heads around not only why this is happening and what we can do as a community to prevent and to educate – but what we can do when it does happen and how we can supportively respond to that person.

“People can heal from this, with the proper professional support.”

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