Mental Health & Sexual Assault
Mental health and sexual assault are closely intertwined. Many people believe an assault is the main cause of trauma for a survivor. However, the assault itself if often just part of the overall ongoing trauma survivors experience.
Sexual assault is not a just a traumatic event; it is a traumatic experience. Trauma is cumulative. Trauma stems from not just the assault, but the aftermath as well. Social and institutional responses to sexual assault can inform how people who are sexually assaulted approach their path to recovery. Sometimes, survivors have great support systems ready and willing to offer assistance. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
A study conducted by Michigan State University examined the various micro- and macrosystems that affect survivors of sexual assault. Cabral, Campbell, and Dworkin state that, “sexual assault does not occur in social and cultural isolation.” Victim-blaming, slut-shaming, disbelief, and personal attacks all await people in the aftermath of their assaults. The same article also suggests that for some survivors, diagnoses like PTSD can feel limiting, because sexual assault trauma is more nuanced and expansive that a diagnosis alone can encapsulate. Part of the reason why is because rape culture is so expansive, in our media, our justice systems, our social interactions. Rape culture perpetuates a cycle of trauma for survivors of sexual assault, beyond what science alone can explain.
Social and societal responses to sexual assault can be as traumatic as the initial assault. According to the Michigan State study, up to half of survivors “meet diagnostic criteria for depression,” and up to 40% “experience generalized anxiety.” For survivors who don’t have strong support systems or ways to cope with their assault, these issues can be exacerbated. They can be worsened further by problems including, “rape-prone culture, institutionalized racism, cultural differences in responding to rape, and acceptance of rape myths.” Although these problems present a bleak picture of survivors’ experiences, there are ways to positively impact someone’s path of healing.
While the study found that social macrosystems tend to perpetuate rape culture, microsystems do not necessarily do the same. Support and care from people closest to the survivor can have a significant impact on the distress levels of the survivor, such as friends, family, advocates, and more. Sexual assault response centers, mental health services, and trauma-informed hospital staff, including sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) can also reduce the level or likelihood of post-assault depression and anxiety.
Taking the blame from survivors is of the utmost importance for these small support systems, because at every step of a survivor’s process there is an opportunity for other people and systems to blame and shame them. To move past pervasive rape culture, we must start by being trauma-informed and less doubtful of survivors. If we do not, we abandon survivors, and leave them to face mental health needs like anxiety and depression, among other needs, by themselves. Surviving a traumatic assault is not a reason to be shunned; it is a reason to be embraced and supported on every level possible.
Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An Ecological Model of the Impact of Sexual Assault On Women’s Mental Health. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10(3), 225-246. doi:10.1177/1524838009334456
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Photo credit: Eden Baron