The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star started the Joyful Heart Foundation to advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault
For Mariska Hargitay, separating herself from her role as sex crimes detective Olivia Benson can be a difficult task.
“Being around that subject matter every day seeps into my consciousness,” says the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star. “When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the statistics of abuse – and the letters that came in from viewers disclosing their own stories.”
She adds, “I was proud to be on a show that was going into new territory, but I knew I wanted to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives.”
So in 2004, roughly five years after her SVU debut, the 51-year-old founded the Joyful Heart Foundation – a national organization that has served more than 14,000 survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and the professionals who help them.
While the organization is taking big steps in advocating for justice (through the movement to test the hundreds of thousands of backlogged rape kits), Hargitay says that simply joining the conversation is a way that everyone can help raise awareness.
That is why she is so proud of Joyful Heart’s participation in the NO MORE initiative – which includes a PSA campaign that she directed involving more than 75 celebrities, athletes and other public figures in an effort to “engage bystanders” and “break the social stigma” of abuse.
Most important, though, Hargitay – like her TV character – encourages listening to survivors with compassion.
“The experience of sexual assault and domestic violence can be extremely isolating,” she says. “So simply listen without judgment. I always have to remind myself that I don’t have to be an expert. I just have to care.”
For more of our interview with Mariska Hargitay, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
• Reporting by GILLIAN TELLING