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RCASA’s Therapy Thursday: The Effects of Sexual Assault on Mental Health

In Therapy, Trauma on June 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

Many people do not realize the extent of the relationship between sexual violence and mental health.  In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, this article focuses on the co-occurrence between sexually violent trauma and the impact on mental health.

Sexual violence and abuse is associated with increased risks of sexual and reproductive health problems, increased mental health problems, and increased social problems.  All of these can have both immediate and long-term consequences.

Sexual violence has a profound impact on mental health. Mental health costs of sexual assault are very high.  According to NIJ, estimates show that close to 50% of rape and child sexual abuse survivors request and receive mental health treatment as a result of the victimization.  Mental health diagnoses that can co-occur most often with sexually violent trauma are:  depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  According to the National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, almost one-third of rape survivors develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, either acute or chronic. Numerous studies nationwide have consistently shown the prevalence rates of sexual abuse histories at close to 50% among women receiving case management mental health services and over 50% – 70% among women receiving inpatient psychiatric services.

Additional disorders that can develop are:  obsessive-compulsive disorders, phobias, personality disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders.  According to the US Public Health Service Office on Women’s Health, 50-75% of women in substance abuse treatment programs are survivors of sexual violence.  Rape survivors are 6.4 times more likely to have used cocaine or other narcotics.

Deaths following sexual violence may be as a result of suicide, HIV infection or murder – the latter occurring either during a sexual assault or after, as a murder of ‘‘honour’’.  Rape survivors are 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to attempt suicide.

Sexual violence can also profoundly affect the social wellbeing of victims; survivor’s may be stigmatized and ostracized by their families, their co-workers, their social network and others as a result.  Child and adult histories of sexual and physical abuse are often the first experience (in a sequence) that leads to homelessness for both women and men.

In a study by the Sexual Assault Report: rape survivors seen by a rape crisis center during their first emergency room visit reported the fasted recovery path from their psychological injuries and returned soonest to normalized daily routines.  Yet, less than 10% of sexual assault victims engage the services of a Rape Crisis Center like the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault due to myths about services, lack of funding for outreach and intervention services, and stigma associated with being a victim.

All of these issues can result from being a victim of sexual violence and abuse.  All of these issues can have both short-term and long-term effects and results in an increase in requests for mental health support and treatment, substance treatment and recovery support, specialized treatment for phobias, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and others.

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