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The Untold Mental Health Crisis of Sexual Assault

The Untold Mental Health Crisis of Sexual Assault

Do you know 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men report experiencing an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime?

44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18.

Children are most vulnerable to childhood sexual assault between 7 and 13 years old.

Sexual assault refers to sexual behavior that occurs without the clear consent of the victim. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), this includes:

  • Attempted rape;
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching;
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body; and
  • Penetration of the victim’s body (rape)

It’s important to note that force does not just mean physical force, but includes manipulation, coercion, threats, and situations where a person is unable to give consent.

A person who has been sexually assaulted will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. The trauma of being assaulted can leave someone feeling scared, angry, guilty, anxious, and sad.


After sexual assault, survivors may feel their bodies are not really their own. Survivors often report feelings such as shame, terror, and guilt. Many blame themselves for the assault.

Due to the trauma and negative emotions linked to sexual abuse, survivors may be at risk for mental health conditions. Survivors of sexual abuse may develop:

Depression: The loss of bodily autonomy is often difficult to cope with. It can create feelings of hopelessness or despair. Depressive feelings may be mild and fleeting, or they can be intense and long-lasting.

Anxiety: The loss of bodily autonomy can also cause severe anxiety. Survivors may fear the attack could happen again. Some may experience panic attacks. Others may develop agoraphobia and become afraid to leave their homes. In some cases, a survivor may develop a chronic fear of the type of person who harmed them. Someone who was raped by a short, black haired man with brown eyes may instinctively dislike, mistrust, or fear all men who match that description.

PTSD : Survivors of sexual assault may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, nightmares or intrusive thoughts and memories may occur. They might feel as though they are always in danger or need to always be on guard, and may distrust other people.

Conditions Associated with PTSD

PTSD is not the only mental health disorder that may develop after a sexual assault. PTSD can also lead to the following mental health conditions:

  • Eating disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Major depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Substance use disorders

The risk for these disorders may be greater for people who have experienced a sexual assault at a younger age.

These feelings may subside over time for some people. However, others will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years.

Therapy can also be helpful for those who experienced sexual abuse in the past. Some therapists specialize in addressing the trauma of sexual assault. Long-term assistance may be beneficial to some survivors of sexual abuse.

Personality disruptions: Sexual abuse can sometimes result in personality disruptions such as borderline personality. The behavior linked with personality disruptions could actually be an adaption to abuse. For instance, a characteristic of borderline personality is a fear of abandonment. That fear might not be adaptive in adulthood. Yet avoiding abandonment might have protected someone from sexual abuse as a child.

Attachment issues: Survivors may find it challenging to form healthy attachments with others. This is especially true among children who have been abused. Adults who were abused as children may have insecure attachment patterns. They could struggle with intimacy or be too eager to form close attachments.

Research suggests abuse survivors are 26 times more likely to use drugs. Drugs and alcohol can help numb the pain of abuse. Yet substance abuse often leads to the development of different concerns.

Having a previous history of being a victim and negative reactions from family, friends, and professionals worsen the impact of sexual violence on mental health.  Because sexual trauma can have such a serious impact on mental health, it’s important that services and supports consider and address the trauma that many individuals have experienced.

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