How To Cope with the Emotional Stress of Campus Disciplinary Allegations

No one thinks, “I have a mental health problem, so I need to hire a lawyer.” Yet, much of the time, lawyers wind up serving this function. In general, lawyers are bad, expensive therapists. We bill by the hour and are often better at arguing than empathizing. But we’ve seen enough students and families in crisis as a result of these cases to have thoughts about the mental health implications of these kinds of allegations.

If you have just received a sexual assault charge, calling a mental health professional is likely not high on your list. You’ll read this manual, maybe call a lawyer, and start preparing to attack the situation. If you’re likely to skip any section in this book, we’d wager it’s this one.

We think that’s a mistake.

Why You Should Seek Help

In the vast majority of cases—just about every case we’ve seen—you can find a few extra hours to talk to a mental health professional.

If you have any prior involvement with a therapist, now is the time to renew that relationship. If that prior therapist isn’t available for whatever reason, find a new one. (In the next section, we’ll talk about whether you should use an on-campus therapist.)

Being accused of sexual assault is tremendously stressful. It is one of the worst things that can happen to a student. Recognize that and respond to it. Don’t tell yourself that you will just tough it out.

We also see that these cases have a tremendous impact on the families of students who are charged. They can pull you apart, or they can make you stronger. If you are not communicating well because of this charge, recognize that and deal with it in a straightforward way. Get help as a family. Get help as individuals.

Now is the time to make your best decisions. Get clarity on what is motivating you and why.

On-Campus Resources

Every school has a counseling center available to students. School administrators will suggest that you go visit it if you’re having any stress related to the charges against you. (How nice of them.)

Many of our clients think that the school’s counselors are on the school’s side and not on theirs. We’ve found good reason to support that. Schools will tell you that an adviser at a hearing, which we discuss in chapter 8 of this book, is there only for emotional support. Yet we’ve often seen people from the school’s counseling center made available as advisers only for the accuser, not the accused.

In general, the confidentiality rules for counselors should apply to a school’s counselors, though asking in advance may be prudent. The bigger issue with using a school’s counselors is whether they will be there for you later. A school’s counselor may bail on you if you ask him or her to be an adviser at a hearing. And you may lose access to that person if an interim restriction keeps you off campus. If you’re found responsible and required to leave campus, you would very likely lose access to the counselor who has been helping you through the process.

A college’s support services can be invaluable, of course. Its counselors can normally see a person quickly and can be significantly more affordable than someone off campus. Getting in to see a counselor for the school may be better than not seeing anyone, but there are downsides that you should be aware of.

Distinguishing Between Emotional Decisions and Tactical Ones

We’ve all had the experience of writing an angry letter or e-mail, sending it, feeling really good about having sent it, and then regretting it ten minutes later. Be sure not to do that in this process.

For every interaction with the school, pause and think about whether you’re doing something because it would feel good to do that or because it gets you a tactical advantage in the disciplinary case. One of the reasons it’s helpful to hire a lawyer is that, because we’re not the ones being accused of rape, it’s easier for us to separate what is emotionally satisfying from what is tactically wise. But if you’re not in a position to hire a lawyer, you’re going to have to find a way to do that yourself.

For example, if you’re asking for a modification of interim restrictions, it is appropriate to let the school know that what it is doing negatively affects your life. Be specific, and put it in writing. How is it making you feel? Is it affecting your class schedule? Your grades? Your extracurricular activities? Your friendships? These are important questions to address. But attacking the motives of the people who put the restrictions in place will just undermine your credibility.

Similarly, there is a horrible dynamic in many cases, which we talk about in other places in this book, where the accuser looks sympathetic and appears to need protection while the accused seems angry and aggressive. Writing a strong letter attacking your accuser’s character or motivations feeds into this dynamic. Unless there’s a good strategic reason for making that kind of statement, the better decision is not to, no matter how good it might feel.