In recent years, Molly Cook has become an active member of the movement against sexual violence by raising awareness of sexual assault and volunteering in domestic violence shelters. With her Schweitzer Fellowship project, Cook is hoping to make a more meaningful―and more measurable―impact on the prevention of sexual violence through a program aimed at educating young people about healthy relationships.
“Prevention is crucial for so many areas of health, and learning about healthy relationships at a young age is no exception,” Cook explains. “I decided to work with teens for my project because they are on the cusp of beginning intimate relationships. Many of the teens I work with have grown up in violent homes, and naturally, violence is their norm. Through my series of classes on healthy relationships and teen dating violence, I hope to spark conversations that help these teens view ‘normal’ relationships through a new lens.”
The UMass Medical School student is collaborating with 12 youth organizations and health centers in Central Mass. on a series of teen dating violence workshops. The curriculum includes units on aspects of healthy and unhealthy relationships, tips to help a friend in an unhealthy dating relationship, and evaluating the media’s effect on perceptions of gender and relationship dynamics. Teens will be provided with resources and asked to complete safety plans that will empower them to assess current relationships and be aware of the steps to take if they choose to end an unhealthy relationship.
“In a perfect world, my project will decrease the prevalence of intimate partner violence in the Central Mass. area,” says Cook. “Realistically, I hope to shift teens’ perceptions of healthy relationships to the point that they feel confident enough to speak up to a friend who is engaging in activities that promote relationship violence.”
She is also looking to preserve the program beyond her fellowship year, having recruited and trained a small group of fellow medical and nursing students who are assisting Cook in teaching the classes, and who will hopefully help to sustain them after her fellowship concludes.
“I also hope to train staff and youth leaders in the Central Mass. area to be able to facilitate these classes at their respective organizations on their own,” adds Cook.
One of the things about her Fellowship that has impressed Cook is what she has learned about the unique issues young people encounter in dating relationships. While she’s done much reading and research on intimate partner violence, “nothing compares to field research”, says Cook.
“The conversations that I have had with the teens have opened my eyes to the pressures that society puts on them to perpetuate the ideals of macho masculinity and relationship violence,” she says. “Furthermore, I can now fully understand how being raised in a violent home encourages violence later in life, as this is their norm. I have also learned that many of these teens have problematic relationships with law enforcement, which can decrease the likelihood of these teens turning to the police for help, and attaining a restraining order, for instance. Every conversation that I have with a group of teens teaches me another aspect of intimate partner violence.”
Cook, of course, isn’t the only one who is doing a lot of learning. Throughout the year, many participants of her workshops have shared that they have been involved in violent dating relationships, either as the abuser, the abused, or both. She reflected back on a workshop where a young man shared that he used to beat up his girlfriend.
“He also shared that he did not like that he used to hit his girlfriend, which is an important first step in being able to change this behavior in the future,” says Cook. “Luckily, this young man was no longer in this relationship.”
A few weeks later, the student shared that he had gone on a date with a girl he really liked and was trying to take things slow, right down to not kissing on the first date.
“I was incredibly proud of this young man and was honored to be able to provide the space for him to share his story,” says Cook. “This conversation also helped to remind me that people who are involved in intimate partner violence can hopefully go on to establish healthy romantic relationships in the future. Rehabilitation is possible if we spend the time talking about intimate partner violence, instead of ignoring it as a major problem in our society today.”
Cook is herself a survivor of sexual assault, and plans to make conversations about intimate partner violence part of the medical care she provides to her future patients. She’s grateful for the practice her Schweitzer Fellowship is giving her in having these difficult discussions.
“Practice is key to becoming comfortable and flexible with a conversation that is as private and triggering as this,” says Cook. “Sexual and relationship violence is hugely underreported. I hope that my fellowship experience will assist me in creating an environment which encourages my patients to feel comfortable sharing their stories.”