Any kind of traumatic life event can trigger post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing flashbacks, stress and anxiety to become a common factor of everyday life. This is very often the case for sexual assault and rape victims and issues are often compounded due to the fact that so many crimes of this nature go unreported.
In England, in the year ending September 2017, police recorded 138,045 sexual offences, the highest figure on record. It is estimated that up to 80% of incidents are unreported.
Why are rape and sexual assault victims at risk of developing PTSD?
Survivors of rape and other types of sexual assault are at a higher conditional risk of developing PTSD relative to survivors of other trauma types. It’s estimated that up to 94% of survivors of rape or sexual assault develop symptoms of PTSD in the first two weeks after the event, leading to around 50% of victims suffering long-term symptoms. This is even more pronounced with child victims, who often don’t know how to seek the help needed, often resulting in a lifetime of PTSD, anxiety and depression.
One major factor in the development of PTSD for victims of sexual assault is the feeling of shame and guilt. It can be difficult to reconcile what happened and blaming yourself is another common factor for many survivors.
Many survivors of rape and sexual assault find it difficult to move past the violation that occurred to them and PTSD is far more common for survivors who thought their life was in danger throughout the assault. Disassociation can be one way victims handle the assault as it takes place and this process is often linked strongly to instances of PTSD after the event.
Some of the other risk factors that can lead to the development of PTSD include not having a viable support network of friends and family in place and a history of mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.
How does PTSD manifest itself?
PTSD can manifest itself in a number of ways including:
- Difficulty interacting with other people
- Avoidance of issues or places that are a reminder of what happened
- Sleep problems
- Self harm
- Suicidal ideation
- Low self-esteem
- Panic attacks
- Substance abuse
- Children that have been sexually abused may become hyper-sexualised as a result
What can be done to help?
The links between sexual assault, rape and the onset of PTSD have been increasingly recognised by the NHS in England and it was announced in June 2018 that victims will be entitled to a lifetime of care to help them cope with all associated trauma.
Sexual assault referral centres are to be integrated into community settings, and greater care provision is to be allocated to male victims of sexual assault.
Recovery from PTSD following sexual assault or rape
As noted in the McGill Journal of Medicine, “Recovery from sexual- assault- related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not solely measured by eliminating symptoms or achieving specific outcomes. Healing from this trauma does not mean that the survivor will forget the experience or never again experience any symptoms. Rather, successful recovery is subjective and measured by whether the survivor increases his or her involvement in the present, acquires skills and attitudes to regain control of his of her life, forgive him or herself for guilt, shame and other negative cognitions, and gain stress reduction skills for overall better functioning. There are many factors involved in successful recovery, including the degree of support received, previous self-concept, personal strength, and professional treatment provided by the medical and justice systems”.
If you feel that you or a loved one may require PTSD support following a sexual assault or rape, please visit your GP who can refer you for diagnosis and treatment as required.
NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).