Kate Walsh sitting in an office
Kate Walsh Photo: Andy Manis

Kate Walsh found her professional calling on a work–study project. She was a psychology student, trying to decide which specialty she wanted to pursue, when she signed up to screen community members for a treatment outcome study on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of the individuals who called in were survivors of sexual violence. Walsh, now an associate professor in the Departments of Psychology and Gender & Women’s Studies, was struck by the number of callers who had experienced more than one sexual assault. In the aftermath, many of the victims were struggling with their mental health and with substance abuse. They were also grappling with the flawed “Just World Theory,” which is the notion that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Walsh has focused her career on changing this victim-blaming mindset because she saw the devastating impact it had on survivors’ recovery.

“I became interested in how we can do a better job of preventing trauma from happening in the first place and responding to trauma when it does happen in a way that really supports people and allows for healing and growth,” she says. “A lot of the work that I do is at this intersection of very stigmatized experiences and behaviors.”

Walsh was hired in 2020 as part of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, a project involving multiple campus schools and departments aimed at translating social science research into policy.

Just months after she arrived, Walsh landed a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime to bring forensic nurses to campus to provide post-assault care and to hire a full-time advocate to expand services for survivors. Since 2021, those nurses have made it so that students no longer need to leave campus to get care.

I became interested in how we can do a better job of preventing trauma from happening in the first place and responding to trauma when it does happen in a way that really supports people and allows for healing and growth.

Kate Walsh

“It’s really hard when you’ve just been assaulted to figure out, ‘What do I need, who do I talk to and what number do I even call?’” says Walsh. “I think [the accessibility] has been huge.”

Lately, her focus has shifted to supporting survivors with marginalized identities and finding early interventions that could reduce their trauma. Her goal is to improve medical care experiences and connect survivors to mental health care, legal rights advocates and other impactful services.

Walsh’s own research shows that one of the biggest predictors of repeated sexual violence is annual income level — if it’s below $10,000, the statistics get significantly worse. The federal government’s Crime Victim Compensation Fund is available to help survivors pay for things like therapy appointments, but applying for it requires reporting the assault, cooperating with law enforcement and waiting months for the process to resolve. In the absence of counseling, survivors may not even be aware the fund exists.

“There could be a lot more attention paid across the U.S. to how we treat folks in the aftermath of violence,” says Walsh. “There are some systems that just don’t serve people in the ways that they need to be served.”

In 2022, Walsh was part of a group that interviewed students and campus stakeholders to come up with recommendations on how UW could better address issues surrounding sexual violence on campus. Recently, the group began moving forward on several recommendations, including hiring a sexual assault response team coordinator who could break down silos and coordinate direct service provision to survivors.

Walsh also sees progress and promising signs at the federal level: She recently received a sizable grant from the National Institutes of Health to support emergency-room patient interventions that could help prevent PTSD and opioid misuse in the wake of an assault. She is hopeful that it’s the start of a new trend in grant funding.

“I’m very excited about the possibility of being able to potentially do some really valuable intervention that’s low burden and low cost for victims when they’re seeking care,” says Walsh.

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