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Building Awareness: Mental Health After Sexual Assault

During Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, we want to talk more about how this issue impacts mental health.  The reality is one in three women and one in six men will encounter sexual violence at some point during their lives.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath, these individuals are more vulnerable to both short-term and long-term psychological effects.  How can we help?  Let’s start by opening up the conversation.


Be Careful with Your Questions

With any other mental health matter asking questions is a matter of course.  It could be the moment your friend or family member is waiting for to open up!  Or a way to show that you care and you want to understand what they’re going through.  Still, in cases of sexual assault, only a small fraction of cases is ever reported.  Not just to the police, but also to friends and family members.  Why are people so uncomfortable discussing this subject?


They might be afraid that their aggressor will get in trouble and/or retaliate against them.  Or they might feel that it’s a personal matter.  One they may have misconstrued or been responsible for in some way.  Other times they may genuinely not want anyone to know!  No matter how well-intentioned you may be.  So, asking probing questions could actually discourage someone who experienced sexual assault from talking about this topic.  If you’re not sure how to bring it up without sounding judgmental and/or driving them away, this is a great resource (link to to read through.

Understand Everyone Reacts Differently

After suffering from sexual assault, there’s no “right” way to respond.  Physically, victims may show virtually no signs of trauma, especially in the long term.  Emotionally and psychologically, though, the effects are much more pronounced.  Developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon, especially for individuals who experienced sexual assault early in life. 

Severe anxiety, uncontrollable flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts may occur with or without an official diagnosis of PTSD.  In an effort to disconnect with their emotions post-assault, individuals can also experience dissociation.  Have you ever felt as though life was happening all around you?  You can see and hear everyday interactions, but you no longer feel like a part of them.  That’s dissociation.  Not to mention, it makes it more difficult to focus on work, school, or other activities. 

Depression frequently follows sexual assault, too.  It comes alongside feelings of shock, confusions, fear, and an overwhelming sense of sadness.  Victims may lose interest in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed, even as they withdraw from the very support systems they need at this time!  In extreme cases, this depression could lead to suicidal thoughts or even attempts.  Not to mention dual diagnoses are common. 

In many cases, it’s not just one mental health issue arising after the fact.  It could be a combination of any number of disorders!  This includes eating disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and relationship/intimacy issues.  Survivors of sexual abuse frequently feel in some way deserving of these negative experiences.  They may (mistakenly) believe that they invited this violation and/or are now unworthy of understanding or help.

While you don’t have to “fix” them, you can be there as they struggle with developing symptoms.  Showing them that they are deserving and things can improve.  Although sexual assault is far too common in our society, we should never be afraid to talk about it.  In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, learn more about this subject and what you can do to help!  If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health matters following this traumatic event, please encourage them to seek professional care.  Remember, at The Family Center, we’re always here, helping individuals and families find solutions.

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