As you’re stepping into your Friday morning, please take a few minutes to read this incredibly powerful, important and insightful post by Megan Staudenraus, one of our very own Youth Mental Health First Aid Liaisons.
Every 107 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in this country (U.S. Department of Justice, 2013). One in five women will be the victim of a committed or attempted sexually assault in her lifetime. One in five men will experience some form of sexual assault other than rape in his lifetime. (Center for Disease Control, 2010). Given the connection between mental health and sexual assault, these figures translate to an enormous impact on our society’s wellness.
Individuals with a severe mental health diagnosis are at a greater risk for being victims of sexual assault. One study found that 40% of women with a severe-impact mental health diagnosis had experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault (Psychological Medicine, 2014). Furthermore, sexual assault is a risk factor for developing several mental health diagnoses. Survivors face a 50% or greater chance of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Population Reports: Ending Violence Against Women, 2000). PTSD can coincide with very disturbing symptoms, like dissociation, intense flashbacks to the incident, uncontrolled physiological responses, nightmares, sleep loss and increased anxiety. There is strong comorbidity between Substance Abuse disorder and sexual assault related-PTSD. Victims of rape are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse other illicit substances (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2013). Survivors are also at an increased risk for depression, suicidality, self-harm and other risk-taking behaviors.
The role of meaningful, survivor-focused support cannot be overstated. Perceived positive regard and early social support is integral to survivor recovery and wellness. Whereas victim-blaming, stigma-reinforcing attitudes, and the perpetuation of rape myths have a negative impact on a survivor’s wellness and their development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sexual assault is layered with many psychological and sociological complexities however, and often misunderstood or misrepresented in our culture and in the media. Let’s tackle some of those common misconceptions.
Myth: Sexual assault looks the same; is straightforward; easy to recognize.
Fact: Though often portrayed as violent attacks by strangers in dark alleys, sexual assault can and most often does look much different than that. Acquaintances, friends, partners, and family members commit rape. A weapon or physical struggle is not always involved. Survivors can experience sexual arousal or orgasm during an attack. Survivor use of alcohol or drugs can alter memory of the incident. Consent is not constant or finite, individuals have the right to withdraw their consent at any time during a sexual experience. Furthermore, sexual assault does not always involve penetration. The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” This definition is intentionally inclusive of a range of experiences, and is fundamentally based on a lack of consent rather than the sexual experience itself. Framing our common language around assault as such, allows survivors to better identify and understand their experience.
Myth: Sexual assault is about sex.
Fact: Sexual assault is not sex, it is violence. It is not about sex, it is about power, aggression, and control. Perpetrators do not “lack sexual control”. This misconception reinforces victim-blaming attitudes, which wrongly fault the survivor for taking risks or tempting the perpetrator (by being intoxicated and/or flirtatious, agreeing to go out on a date, dressing a certain way, etc.). The vast majority of assailants also do not have a mental health disorder. Individuals with a mental diagnosis are in fact more likely to be the victim of an attack than the perpetrator.
Myth: I don’t know anyone who has been sexually assaulted.
Fact: Sexual assault occurs across classes, age groups, religions, ethnicities, sexes, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, and geographical locations. Statistically speaking, you likely know or have interacted with a survivor. An alarming estimated 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of assault by the age of 18.
Myth: I should convince survivors to report the incident immediately.
Fact: Some survivors indicate that reporting the crime helped them regain a sense of control and justice, and that it was crucial to their healing process. However, reporting the crime and/or completing a rape kit examination can be incredibly re-traumatizing. Many survivors choose not to report. In a support role, that can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to understand. Survivors choose to not report for various reasons though. They may not recognize the instance as rape, may be in a relationship with their assailant, may be unsupported by friends or family, face stigma, negative ramifications or exclusion from their community, or they may fear their assailant knowing their identity. Rather than convincing survivors to do what we think is right, our role is to offer support, and honor their decisions to regain a sense of safety, justice, and wellness.
Survivors have the right to make their own decisions, take their time, change their mind, seek and receive accurate information and meaningful support, to ask questions, and most importantly the right to heal. We can act as advocates for those rights and needs throughout the reporting, examination and/or healing process. Rape Crisis Advocates are also an excellent resource available to help survivors navigate through the healing process. These trained advocates can provide support immediately following an assault, offering important information as the individual decides how to proceed, and advocating for their needs throughout the examination and/or reporting process. Rape Crisis Advocates are also trained to support individuals coping with trauma that occurred in the past.
As with most other mental health-related concerns, recovery and wellness after an assault is possible and likely. Survivors may find professional support to be incredibly helpful, in addition to positive regard and unconditional social support. Trauma-informed interventions are treatments designed specifically to address survivor concerns. These treatments honor a survivor’s need to be informed about, in control of, and hopeful towards their recovery. The potential for comorbid mental health challenges like substance abuse or eating disorders is directly acknowledged. Generally, trauma-informed care also utilizes a collaborative support approach between friends, family and the survivor. Ultimately, the survivor has the right to decide what treatment is right for them.
There are a variety of other options and resources available to survivors. For more information about statistics, treatment options, or for support, please call The National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with local resources in your area, or visit www.rainn.org.