There are few forms of violence more widespread and devastating than sexual assault. It can take many forms and affect nearly anyone—regardless of age, socioeconomic status, gender, relationship status, or sexual orientation—and the damage and pain caused by sexual violence can haunt survivors for years.
The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that an American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. RAINN also estimates that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape during their lifetime. Women make up 90% of rape victims, and while women and femme people are most affected by sexual assault, there are still many men who report suffering sexual violence. Nearly half of all assaults take place at or near the victim’s home.
Recovering from a sexual assault can be a long, painful, frightening process, and many people never do recover fully from an attack. In addition to the act itself, there can be significant triggers that victims face in everyday life, including the media, acts of gendered violence, and microaggressions.
Sexual assault is a prevalent and significant issue in our society—not only in the frequency it occurs, but also in the way victims are treated, the glorification of sexual violence in our popular media, and the lack of discussions around consensual sexual behavior and equality.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. In observance of this month, our team is sharing information on the impact that sexual assault can have on mental health and how survivors can begin their path to recovery from this trauma.
What is Sexual Assault Awareness Month?
Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month is dedicated to raising awareness and inciting action to prevent sexual assault. This month focuses on not only supporting survivors and sharing information about resources to support their wellbeing after an attack—but also to share information on sexual assault with the greater public, empower people to speak out against sexual violence and “rape culture,” and provide necessary resources to help educators and activists continue to fight against sexual assault.
During this month, RAINN, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and other organizations are joining forces to help spread awareness and help survivors get the care and support they deserve.
How Does Sexual Assault Impact Mental Health and Trauma?
Violence in any form is a traumatic experience, but sexual violence can be especially challenging to face. Sexual assault has been linked to a number of long-and short-term effects, including feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, trouble sleeping, shock, isolation, feelings of shame, confusion, guilt, and flashbacks. Recovery is a process, and many sexual assault victims are at an increased risk of mental health issues after their assault.
Some common mental health conditions faced by sexual assault survivors include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse disorders
- Personality disruptions
- Attachment issues
Sexual assault can also have a significant negative impact on people already living with mental illness. Additionally, because of the social implications of sexual assault, many victims face social backlash, even though rape is never the victim’s fault.
When sexual assault is experienced at a young age, many victims continue to struggle with the aftereffects of their abuse for years. It can be difficult to provide adequate support to under-age sexual violence victims, especially since nearly 73% of child sexual assault victims don’t disclose their experiences in the year following the event and nearly 93% of child sexual assault victims know their attacker well. Due to the delay in reporting their attack, many child victims of sexual violence do not get adequate treatment or experience a significant period of time before they have access to treatment for their trauma.
Sexual Harassment, Trauma, and Mental Illness
The rates of women suffering from a mental illness are significantly greater than the rates of men living with a mental health condition. At first glance, this can appear to be due to something unique about the female brain, but there is more than meets the eye.
Our society is rife with victim-blaming, discrimination, and stress for women, who often are re-traumatized on a daily basis. High levels of stress and mental health issues have been linked to experiencing discrimination and aggression—which many women face in the form of sexual harassment every day.
Additionally, blaming a victim for their attack compounds the trauma, making healing even more difficult. When sexual violence victims are asked about what they were wearing, their sobriety, or why they didn’t fight back, their pain and suffering are only increased.
Statistics on Sexual Assault and Mental Illness
The military is often cited as one of the leading causes of PTSD, but research points to a different leading cause—sexual assault. Between 30 and 80 percent of sexual assault victims develop PTSD. Because so many more women than men experience sexual violence, the potential cause of the disparity in the rates of mental illness between the sexes becomes far more apparent.
Symptoms of PTSD are commonly seen in victims of sexual assault—regardless of age. These symptoms include:
- Distress at “triggers,” or reminders of the attack
- Specific fears
- Concentration issues
- Lessened interest in activities
- Recounting the events of the assault frequently
- Avoidance of triggers
- Emotional outbursts
These trauma behaviors may appear in any combination or severity, but each is a symptom of a deeper issue.
Substance abuse is another mental health issue that is tightly entwined with sexual violence. According to RAINN, people who have been sexually assaulted are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 6 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to try other drugs. Alcohol abuse is also another significant problem sexual assault victims can face.
Suicide is a mental health issue many women and men face after sexual violence. RAINN reports that 33% of women contemplate suicide and 13% of women attempt suicide after being sexually assaulted.
You Don’t Have to Face Recovery Alone
Recovery after trauma can be painful and terrifying, but you aren’t alone. Our team of compassionate mental health professionals at Mission Harbor Behavioral Treatment is ready to walk beside you on your healing journey. We offer treatment options that address many mental health conditions and substance abuse problems.
We’re here for you. Learn how we can help by contacting our offices today.