Study: Poor Mental Health Outcomes Found When Family Members Don't Believe Sexual Abuse Survivors

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Sexual Abuse Survivors Who Aren’t Believed At Higher Risk for Poor Mental Health Outcomes

Sexual Abuse Survivors Who Aren’t Believed At Higher Risk for Poor Mental Health Outcomes

Jan 15, 2024

A recent study from Australia confirms how negative responses from family members towards survivors of sexual abuse can adversely impact numerous mental health outcomes.

When survivors disclose their abuse to family members and encounter negative responses, they are at much higher risk for developing poor mental health later in life, the study by University of New South Wales medical researchers showed.

There is ample evidence that sexual abuse is widespread among women – for example, we know that nearly 1 in 5 adult women globally, and approximately 20% of Australian women report exposure to sexual abuse in childhood,” the study’s lead author, Associate Professor Susan Rees from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Medicine’s School of Psychiatry, said.

The objective of the study was to develop better mental health interventions and strategies towards averting common “longer-term emotional difficulties and risks that [sexual] abuse survivors encounter later in life,” the university said.

“The association between exposure to sexual abuse and a wide range of common mental disorders and adverse psychosocial outcomes is also well established,” Professor Rees added.

However, there are only few studies that have tried to qualitatively understand the possible range of sexual assault disclosure responses from parents and relatives – girls’ and women’s most likely confidantes – as well as the survivors’ associated emotional reaction, and mental disorder later in life.

Sexual Abuse and Mental Health Study: University’s Methods Explained

Researchers from UNSW conducted interviews with 30 adult female survivors of sexual abuse who had sought support from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s Sexual Assault Counselling Service.

Seeking to better understand the “interpersonal complexity of the survivor’s experiences,” the research team:

  • Enabled the survivors to explore their experiences in a confidential one-on-one setting with skilled counsellors.
  • Together, survivors and their assigned counsellors plotted the sexual abuse experiences on a visual timeline.

Survivors were then asked to describe in detail the “main three toxic responses from family members when they” disclosed their sexual assault. For many of the study’s participants, the abuse occurred when they were children.

Women who had these negative disclosure experiences involving family members reported a range of “adverse psychosocial outcomes experienced later in their lives.”

Said negative outcomes included:

  • Social isolation
  • Taking drugs
  • Recurrent or persisting mental disorders
  • Future risk of abuse (including bullying at school)

Women described being ignored, blamed for the abuse or being threatened that some harm would come to them or the family if they speak out,” Professor Rees said.

“In short, we found that these negative responses are strongly associated with mental disorders and future adversity later in life – particularly if the negative disclosure experience occurred during childhood,” Rees added.

Researchers from UNSW were hopeful that by allowing for a more nuanced understanding of what happens when child sexual abuse survivors disclose to family members and are not believed, the study’s findings may help to:

  • Better inform interventions and public campaigns
  • Encourage society to work towards “breaking the silence that protects perpetrators and obscures the pervasive harms caused by sexual abuse against children and women”

Professor Rees cited the need for parents to better understand the importance of responding with affirming and caring responses if they are ever confronted with disclosures of a child sex abuse.

… the period immediately following a [childhood sexual abuse] disclosure may be a critical window where survivors are particularly vulnerable,” Rees said.

Recommendations from the UNSW Child Sexual Abuse Study

Researchers recommended:

  • Special training to identify and respond to negative disclosure experiences
  • Broad public attention aimed at reducing all forms of sexual violence (steered by the #MeToo Movement in an effort to promote “public acknowledgement of men’s culpability, rather than women’s responsibility”)

“We need to harness this impetus at the community level to overcome denial and victim blaming in the home, too,” Professor Rees concluded.

Officials from UNSW Medicine and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s Sexual Assault Counselling Service noted that they plan to conduct future research on the topic of child sexual abuse disclosure to family members (and how negative reactions can impact mental health outcomes).

Our sample was non-representative and we therefore can’t generalize our findings to the wider population of women who have been sexually abused – so we need more research,” Professor Rees said.

Help for California Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Survivors of child sex abuse have the option to file a civil claim towards financial compensation related to various damages:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional trauma
  • Lost wages and/or reduced earning capacity
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Counseling and therapy expenses/medical care expenses

To speak with a skilled and proven childhood sexual abuse attorney from Dordulian Law Group (DLG), contact us today at 866-GO-SEE-SAM for a free, confidential, and no-obligation consultation.

For a childhood sexual abuse case occurring before 2024, survivors can make a claim for financial compensation by filing a civil lawsuit with DLG’s dedicated Glendale, California, SAJE Team (Sexual Abuse Justice Experts).

It’s important to note the possible deadlines for filing such a civil action:

  • By the victim’s 40th birthday
  • Up to 10 years from the date of the incident
  • Within three years of the reasonable discovery of injuries stemming from that crime (including post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD)
  • Within five years of the discovery of the abuse

California law now mandates that in childhood sexual abuse cases where the survivor is harmed as a result of “an effort to cover up past assaults,” recovery of treble damages (triple the financial compensation awarded in a civil case) is possible.

Contact our top-rated team of expert sexual abuse attorneys online or by phone today to pursue justice and secure a financial award for damages.

Additionally, in California, the new AB-452 law known as the Justice for Survivors Act eliminates the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse for crimes happening after January 1, 2024. Any child harmed by a perpetrator after 2024 is no longer bound to the standard statute of limitations for filing a civil claim.

Contact DLG today at 866-GO-SEE-SAM to get justice for your sexual abuse case.

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