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In the United States, one out of every six women and one out of every 33 men has been the victim of attempted or completed sexual violence; nine out of 10 rape victims are female. Over 400,000 people age 12 and older and 60,000 children under 12 experience sexual assault annually.
While a significant issue in its own right, sexual assault is increasingly linked to mental health and addiction challenges. In some cases, sexual assault is a catalyst in the development of substance use disorders or mental illness, and in others, illness and abuse may tragically result in circumstances that make an individual more vulnerable to sexual assault.
Due to the prevalence of mental health challenges and substance use disorders in relation to sexual violence, it can be difficult to disentangle the effects of PTSD from sexual assault with other causes of mental illness. However, addressing the trauma of sexual assault and implementing healthy coping mechanisms can be an important first step on the road to recovery.
Sexual Trauma and Mental Health
Sexual assault can be very detrimental to mental health, on both a short-term and a long-term basis. Many survivors of sexual assault report feeling shame, isolation, shock, guilt and stress. Some may experience flashbacks that interrupt the ability to lead normal lives. Despite the messaging that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim, many individuals feel immense guilt, as if they are responsible. PTSD and sexual assault are also heavily linked; things associated with an assault, like a certain smell, can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. This can increase the likelihood of developing mental health issues or the worsening of existing challenges related to conditions like:
- Eating disorders
- Substance use disorders
One study found that in the months following a sexual assault, 80% of those surveyed reported one mental health disorder, and 55% reported at least two mental health disorders.
It’s clear there are strong links between mental illness and sexual trauma, but determining the ramifications of PTSD from sexual assault and how best to address them can be difficult. However, mental health symptoms of sexual assault can often be alleviated with proper treatment for trauma.
Substance Abuse and Sexual Trauma
Substance abuse and sexual trauma are often linked, in that one can inform the other. Some survivors of sexual assault drink or use drugs to deal with complex emotions that accompany rape PTSD, while the reliance on substances for any number of reasons can lead to situations in which sexual assault may be more common. A substance use disorder can result in impaired judgment, proximity to less reputable people, financial instability, and a vulnerable state due to intoxication. Unfortunately, predators may use these circumstances to take advantage of those too intoxicated to consent. Further, sexual favors may be forced as payment for drugs or alcohol.
It’s important to note that sexual assault is solely the fault of the perpetrator. Nothing, from dress to drug use, excuses or justifies sexual assault. While feelings of guilt and shame are common in those who have experienced rape, forcible touching, or attempted assault, victims are never responsible or to blame. No amount of drinking or taking drugs makes unwanted sexual contact okay, and no one ever deserves to be abused.
Trauma and Ties to Mental Illness
Most occurrences of attempted or actual sexual assault result in trauma. Unfortunately, the presence of this level of trauma can result in the development of other mental health disorders. Individuals who experienced sexual assault may feel depressed about what happened to them and the negative emotions surrounding the event, as well as having anxiety about it happening again. This is why it’s so common for those who’ve experienced assault to see issues compound beyond PTSD.
Getting Help for Sexual Assault
Sexual abuse and PTSD often go hand in hand. In these cases, there’s no “getting over it,” as much as well-intentioned people may give this advice. The psychological wounds caused by trauma can be life-altering, and proper treatment is often the best way to start the healing process.
Treatment for mental health after a sexual assault comes in several forms:
- Individual therapy with a trained therapist experienced in the lasting consequences of sexual assault
- Support groups and group therapy for those who have experienced sexual assault
- Comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation
- Medication to manage symptoms while undergoing treatment
There is no one proper way to treat the trauma that can come with sexual assault, but getting help can be imperative to avoiding lasting mental health ramifications. Finding a way to process and move forward without guilt or shame can be pivotal to living a healthy, happy life unburdened by lasting trauma and associated mental illness.
Treating Trauma and Mental Illness
It’s very common to treat visible symptoms rather than the root of an issue, and this can occur in addressing PTSD and sexual assault, too. When the trauma related to unwanted sexual contact contributes to other mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression, the first instinct is often to treat the side effects and secondary conditions rather than addressing the root issue. This is why it’s so important for those suffering from PTSD after sexual assault to seek treatment for the trauma they experienced as well as the negative symptoms evident as a result of this trauma.
By helping those who experienced sexual abuse to heal in a safe, healthy manner, it’s more likely that symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or any other added complications may diminish, too. For this reason, those who are in a downward spiral related to assault or abuse are encouraged to seek care with a provider who specializes in PTSD.
If you or someone you love is experiencing mental health challenges, regardless of the reason, help is here. Please contact FHE Health to learn more about our mental health treatment programs, including treatment for those who are experiencing PTSD after sexual assault.