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Sexual violence against women leads to lifetime harm

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Women's health

A new study shows that women who suffer intimate partner violence have an increased lifetime risk of mental health disorders. The study, which covered more than 4,400 women and was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 27 percent of the women said they had suffered from sexual or physical violence, or been stalked.

The women were 3 to 11 times more likely to have ever had a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, and the risk increased dramatically with a greater proportion of the trauma suffered. For women who had suffered at least three of four types of violence, such as rape, other types of sexual assault, physical abuse by a partner or stalking, a full 89 percent had a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Women who had never had such an experience had a 28% rate for mental health disorders.

Using instruments developed by the World Health Organization and data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey (2007), the researchers showed that the four most common types of gender-based violence are strongly associated with a wide range of problems for women including more severe current mental disorder, higher rates of three or more lifetime mental disorders, physical disability, mental disability, impaired quality of life, and overall disability.

Of the 139 women who'd suffered several different types of violence, 77 percent had an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

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More than half had post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, while nearly half had abused drugs or alcohol. Thirty-five percent said they'd attempted suicide.

"There are compelling reasons to support the strong likelihood that gender-based violence is a major contributor to mental disorders in women," said lead researcher Susan Rees, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Women in the study said their first experience with violence came at a shockingly early age, before the onset of mental health problems. The median age at first occurrence of the trauma was 12 for sexual assault, 13 for rape, 22 for being stalked, and 22 for violence from a partner. Gender-based violence was more prevalent among women from poorer backgrounds.

The violence has a serious impact on women's ability to function, to work, and to sustain relationships. Typically, women remain silent, blame themselves, and have a higher likelihood of entering into future abusive relationships, thereby compounding the trauma. On the other hand, counseling soon after the occurrence and a support network of family and friends provide a chance for a much speedier recovery.

Dr. Rees said women's services needed adequate funding to deal with serious psychiatric problems and public education was needed to alter attitudes that sanctioned violence against women.

JAMA: doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.1098
"Lifetime Prevalence of Gender-Based Violence in Women and the Relationship With Mental Disorders and Psychosocial Function"
Susan Rees, et al.; August, 2011



Terrifying stats in this report - even the fact that more than 1 in 4 women have suffered from sexual violence. No doubt the extent of harm to these women is exacerbated greatly by the reluctance to seek help and to self-blame. It demonstrates how damaging these mental health problems are when they induce people to blame themselves for the violence of others