For victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse, the impact doesn’t just end when the physical effects heal.
The memory of the traumatic event can haunt them and cause adverse and long-lasting effects on their mental health. Whether you are a survivor yourself or know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault, it is important to recognize and address the psychological effects of sexual assault as well.
If you are recovering from sexual assault, you may not be motivated to do your daily activities. Yet your body still needs nutrition and sleep. Physical health and mental health are strongly linked. Even a basic routine can make a person feel more “in control.”
You may also want to find an outlet for your emotions. Some people use exercise to lift their mood and burn off steam. Others record their emotions in a diary or express their feelings through art. Any activity that makes you happy is likely to help.
When engaging in media, you may want to pay extra attention to content warnings. If you are not sure whether a book or news story will upset you, you may want to read it in a private place. If you come across a trigger, you can always close the book or turn off the computer. Even if you are enjoying a movie with friends, you can leave the theater if something upsets you. You do not have to put others’ feelings above your own mental health.
You do not owe anyone a story. You do not have to answer everyone’s questions. You do not have to answer questions from anyone, even close friends, or family. If you only want certain people to know your story, you can ask those people to keep it secret. You can control your narrative.
There is no timeline for recovery. If you heal quickly, your resilience doesn’t make the assault any less serious. Neither are you “weak” if you take a long time to heal. No one else can tell you the right way to feel for your situation.
Mental Health and Sexual Assault
According to RAINN, every 92 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Of those victims of sexual assault, most will experience some kind of negative effect on their mental health. One survey that focused on teenage girls who had been sexually assaulted found that after a few months following the event, 80% of them developed one mental health disorder and 55% had at least two mental health disorders.
Effects of Sexual Assault on Mental Health
When something as traumatic as sexual assault occurs, the effects that follow can include a whirlwind of mixed emotions and consequently long-lasting mental health problems. As a residential mental health center in South Florida, we have worked with victims of sexual assault and have seen these devastating effects up close.
Some of the most common psychological effects sexual assault victims experience include:
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Problems sleeping
- Eating disorders
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Avoidance of certain places/things related to the event
- Anxiety disorders
- Depression and suicidal thoughts or actions
Unfortunately, most victims will experience these effects in some capacity. While many common psychological effects of sexual assault include feelings of shame, guilt, or fear, these emotions may be more fleeting and get better as time goes on. In many other cases, the effects are more severe. One study found that victims of sexual assault were significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders, eating disorders, PTSD, sleep disorders, depression, and suicidal attempts than the average population.3 Without professional mental health treatment, it could lead to devastating results. Some people may even develop a substance abuse disorder to escape their overwhelming feeling or to try to cope with them.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that causes a variety of troubling symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event like sexual assault.
PTSD is fairly common among people who have experienced sexual assault, with one study showing that roughly 70% of survivors of sexual assault experience significant levels of trauma, with 45% reporting symptoms of PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD may include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, startling easily, and having negative thoughts and beliefs.
PTSD is not a sign of weakness; it is a mental health condition that can be diagnosed and treated. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important to see a doctor.
Other Effects of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault can take a toll on your physical, sexual, and behavioral health for months or even years after the event took place.
A sexual assault can bring on a number of chronic physical conditions, which are also common among people with PTSD. For example, women who have been raped have been found to be more likely to experience:
- Chronic pelvic pain
- Digestive problems
- Intense premenstrual symptoms
- Non-epileptic seizures
Additionally, people who are survivors of rape or attempted rape are at an increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which can lead to additional physical and emotional health problems.
Enjoying sexual contact can be difficult after experiencing sexual trauma. Someone who has survived a sexual assault may experience low sexual desire and reduced sexual behavior. Some survivors experience pain, fear, or anxiety with sexual contact. Shame and guilt stemming from the trauma can also interfere with their desire for and satisfaction from sex.
Survivors of childhood sexual assault are likely to have more severe sexual problems. Penetration during sexual assault will also increase the risk for future sexual problems.
There is no single behavioral reaction to sexual assault. For example, while some survivors avoid sex after experiencing assault, others engage in risky sexual behaviors such as not using protection or having a greater number of sexual partners. Survivors may also turn to unhealthy behaviors like substance use and self-harm in an effort to cope with the intense unpleasant emotions that come from being assaulted.
Some survivors may go to great lengths to avoid situations that feel potentially dangerous and may shy away from television shows, newspaper articles, or conversations that discuss sexual assault. These feelings may subside over time for some people. Others, however, will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years.
How To Support A Survivor
Sexual abuse is a delicate subject to talk about. If you have a loved one who has survived sexual abuse, you may not know how to discuss the situation. Here are some tips for supporting a survivor.
Believe loved ones who tell you they were abused. Due to stigma, rape and other forms of sexual abuse are underreported. People often avoid telling the truth for fear they will encounter victim blaming. If someone has told you about their sexual abuse, they likely trust you a lot.
False abuse reports are extremely rare. The rate of false reports for sexual abuse is lower than the rates of false reports for other crimes. If you would not doubt a loved one’s report of being robbed, skepticism about their rape is likely unwarranted.
Mind your language. Jokes about rape can minimize the trauma of sexual assault. They may also trigger flashbacks or panic attacks in survivors.
When referring to sexual abuse, follow your loved one’s lead. This article uses the term “survivor,” but not everyone may wish to be called that. Some people prefer to be called victims, feeling “survivor” is a patronizing word.
No matter if your loved one is experiencing the psychological effects of sexual assault or you are struggling with chronic depression, you should not ignore your mental health. At New Roads Behavioral Health, our anxiety, mood, and trauma disorder treatment programs in Utah are designed to help you feel happier and stronger.