Mental Health Effects Sexual Assault Victims Face

Updated: Apr 30

By: Shawn Soh


Sexual violence and rape are not an uncommon experience in the general population, and their scale is staggering. It includes, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment by strangers or acquaintances, rape within marriage or dating relationships, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of violence, including at work and school. According to research, sexual assault is likely to affect at least one-third of the women at some point of their life.


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Victims of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can happen to anyone. While women are more common victims, men are also sexually abused and experience all forms of sexual assault. Some subgroups face higher rates than like, women who are lesbian or bisexual, men who are gay, transgender, and petite, come across more harassment than other men, and appear to suffer the same mental health impacts as women.

Young adults are most likely to be victimized as compared to those aged 25 years or older. Studies have shown that child sexual abuse (CSA) can harm millions of children, boys and girls alike, across a range of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds in large and small communities.


Mental Health Implications That Sexual Assault Victims Face

Its prevalence is difficult to determine, but it has multiple effects on victims' physical and gynecological health and a range of mental health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, psychosis, and substance abuse problems. Not only is sexual assault responsible for personal mental-health effects, it is also responsible for escalating other forms of psychological issues like relationship problems, low self-esteem, sexual problems, self-harm, and emotional problems such as anxiety, guilt, and shame.

1. Depression

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To have feelings of sadness, unhappiness, and hopelessness is considered normal for sexual assault survivors. But if these feelings persist for a long period, then they are a sign of depression. The loss of bodily autonomy of an assault survivor is not an easy thing to cope with and may result in creating feelings of hopelessness or despair.

Being depressed doesn’t mean that you are weak and couldn't snap out of it. It's an unignorable mental health condition, but survivors can have a complete remission of the disorder with effective treatment and the help of a professional.

2. PTSD

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic event such as military combat, natural disasters, serious accidents, or physical/sexual assault in adults or children. In survivors of sexual violence, these feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness become severe, last for more than a few weeks, and interrupt day-to-day life indicating PTSD.

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PTSD can cause you to feel constantly in danger, making it difficult for the survivor to function in everyday life and can be challenging. Three of the main signs of PTSD include:

Flashbacks

Avoiding scenarios

Hyper-arousal

It is common for a sexual assault survivor to feel like they are reliving the event through dreams, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts and intentionally or subconsciously avoiding scenarios associated with the event, being easily startled, or prone to sudden outbursts. But with the right help and professional support, most PTSD patients can be treated.

3. Eating Disorder

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Sexual violence can affect survivors in many ways, including sensitivities and other disorders like eating or sleeping. Three main types of eating disorders considered are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Self-starvation that causes weight loss, or eating without control, response to normal hunger cues, and purging of food in some way, for example, laxatives or self-induced vomiting, has a damaging effect on the overall health of the sexual survivors. Eating disorders are complex, and it is essential to find the right kind of professional support for a full recovery.

4. Poor Sleep Pattern

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Sexual assault can affect sleep quality by interfering with regular sleep patterns such as sleeping at unusual times of day, trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping for longer or shorter intervals. Sleep is essential for restoring the physical and mental health of the sexual assault survivors. The most common sleep disorders most survivors of sexual assault undergo include nightmares, sleep terrors, and insomnia that needs to be discussed with a healthcare professional to learn more about the symptoms.

5. Substance Abuse Problems

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Drugs and alcohol are often used as a tool to numb the pain of abuse and as a way of dealing with feelings of anxiety or depression. Such substance abuse has a more negative consequence and often leads to the development of different apprehensions. Most of the survivors turn to such unhealthy behaviors to cope with the extremely unpleasant reactions that come from being assaulted and end up in self-harm. If someone you care about is consuming substances like drugs or alcohol for temporary relief, find support and search for a local treatment center to save them from any health risks.

6. Social Phobia

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Sexual assault can affect the survivor's perceived body image and sometimes result in personality disruptions such as borderline personality. Many survivors may use social avoidance as an attempt to cope with the trauma, as compensation for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem devastating. Dissociation is one of the many defense mechanisms a survivor can use to cope with the trauma of sexual violence, but it can cause long-term damage to your health.

7. Suicidal Attempts and Self-harm

Suicidal thoughts are a major risk to survivors of sexual assaults as they think about suicide at one time or another in their lives. Self-harm is often short-lived and isn’t necessarily a warning sign for suicide. Unfortunately, this relief tactic can cause damage and sometimes life-threatening medical problems. Remember, suicide is preventable and suicidal thoughts aren’t permanent; you are strong and only need love and affection.

The health implications of sexual assault depend majorly on the quality of care that victims receive immediately after the assault. Certified professionals are waiting to help and support the physical, mental, and behavioral effects of surviving sexual assault. Remember, sexual assault isn't the victims fault.


1. Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)

Provides confidential emotional support for those in crisis, thinking of suicide, or affected by suicide.

24 hours

1800-221 4444


2. Touchline by Touch Youth Services

Provides emotional support and practical advice to youth.

Monday - Friday (Weekdays)

9am - 6pm

1800-377 2252


3. AWARE Sexual Assault Care Centre Helpline

Sexual abuse related issues

Monday - Friday, excluding Public Holidays

10am to 10pm

+65 6779 0282


References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16564226/

  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6998874/

  3. Sexual Harassment Research - Sexual Harassment of Women - NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)

  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4413451/

  5. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd

  6. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/epidemiology-and-psychiatric-sciences/article/sexual-violence-and-mental-health-services-a-call-to-action/EF4FAD5085CEC6C408E9B0C25280A36D

Note from writer:

This article is dedicated to friends and love ones who have suffered in silence. You've been strong in this battle and we would like you to know that there are those in this world who want to stand up for every single one of you courageous souls.