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The Deep-Rooted Consequences of Sexual Abuse on Mental Health

The Deep-Rooted Consequences of Sexual Abuse on Mental Health

Sexual Abuse and its Effect on Mental Health

Sexual abuse is one of the most acute problems in modern society since it affects everyone regardless of age, social or economic status, gender, culture, race or religion. Besides, it affects the victim and his/her social surroundings. The seriousness of the problem lies in the fact that it is easier to cope with it post-factum rather than prevent it and protect the potential victims. This essay explores the issue of sexual abuse and its devastating effect on mental health.

Background Information

Sexual abuse entails any acts of sexual violence, including genital touching, vaginal or anal intercourse, incest, prostitution as well as exposure to pornography. The aims of sexual abuse relate not only to performing sexual intercourse but also to proving the offender’s superiority over the victim and gaining control over him/her.


There is a common misconception that the only victims of sexual abuse are young girls and women. The scope of the problem spreads virtually to all members of society, including children and men. For example, it has been estimated that cases of child sexual abuse are reported up to 80,000 times a year, and the number of unreported cases is even bigger since children are ashamed and afraid to tell anyone what happened to them (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2014).

The Problem of Sexual Abuse and its Prevalence

The problem of sexual abuse has long-lasting consequences since it affects not only physical but also psychological health. Women are prone to sexual abuse at home or in the workplace. They may be assaulted at home by their partners or husbands, whereas at the workplace, they may be viewed as a ‘sexual target’ by their offenders. Men can also be targets of sexual violence, especially by their homosexual colleagues at the workplace. Very often, such cases are not reported because of shame. Children are exposed to sexual abuse even in surroundings considered completely safe, such as their home. The research proves that “child sexual abuse is more likely to be perpetrated by a family member than a non-family member” (McLean et al., 2014).

Important Facts about Sexual Abuse and its Effect on Mental Health

Researchers from University College and Kings College London conducted a study and revealed that 40% of women and 12% of men with severe mental illnesses are more likely to become victims of rape or sexual assault rather than the general population (“40% of women,” 2014). Among the representatives of the general population, 7% of women became victims of sexual harassment, and 3% attempted suicide. Regarding men, 0.5% of the general population were assaulted (“40% of women,” 2014). Thus, it is obvious that not only sexual assault is the leading cause of mental illness but vice versa as well.

The researchers who studied children prove that “Child sexual abuse is associated with reduced cognitive function” (Barrera, Calderon, & Bell, 2013). A study on Australian sexually abused children revealed that they demonstrated worse academic achievements and had significantly reduced IQ (Barrera, Calderon, & Bell, 2013).


Sexual abuse leads to serious functional changes in the human organism. For example, it has been estimated that sexual abuse among children has long-lasting effects and a deteriorating brain impact. Thus, women or men who were abuse victims in childhood may suffer from sexual dysfunction, absence of sexual desire, and genital pain during sexual intercourse, among other issues. Moreover, the victims of sexual abuse may also have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which deals more with patients’ mental health. People once exposed to sexual abuse may have continuous bouts of panic or paranoia, develop mistrust towards a particular gender, and be afraid to be involved in relationships. In addition, they may have insomnia or recurring nightmares, which may lead to suicidal attempts (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2014). Nevertheless, researchers claim that ‘Not all sexual abuse survivors develop mental health problems” (Barrera, Calderon, & Bell, 2013).


Before devising a treatment plan for victims of sexual abuse, it is imperative to assess the severity of impacts on behavior and health state. Assessment is aimed at recognizing the effect of sexual abuse, understanding its consequences, and developing a strategy that will help the target population cope with the problem. Usually, an assessment is conducted by a mental health professional or a psychologist who knows how to deal with such issues. In the assessment process, it is crucial to establish a feeling of mutual understanding and trust and build rapport with the victim. A properly made assessment is vital for facilitating treatment strategies for sexual abuse victims.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Sexual abuse may be hard to diagnose, especially if its occurrences are concealed. Besides, not all forms of sexual abuse involve evident physical harm. Nevertheless, one may notice drastic behavioral patterns and psychological and physical health changes. Sexual abuse can be diagnosed from a patient’s medical history, for instance, if a person addressed doctors to receive medical care due to recurring gynecological problems, skin bruises, sleep deprivation or emotional trauma. After the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse are revealed, a victim needs proper medical and psychological treatment. In addition, he/she should undergo a thorough medical examination to ensure that there are no serious risks to the health. In case of rape, women should take a pregnancy test as well as the test for acquiring possible sexually transmitted diseases and HIV test.

Treatment should focus on helping women reduce their reliance on maladaptive coping and self-blame and increase their ability to control emotions with cognitive processing techniques (Ullman, Peter-Hagene, & Relyea, 2014). The testing of multiple mediators has revealed that “Maladaptive coping strategies . . . relate to greater psychological symptoms after ASA” (Ullman, Peter-Hagene, & Relyea, 2014). Thus, counseling focused on helping victims cope with the effects of child sexual abuse and other traumas is important in the treatment process.

Morbidity and Mortality

Morbidity and mortality rates of sexual abuse victims are directly related to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The abused may acquire diseases like HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B. When not treated properly, they may lead to lethal consequences. Besides, mortality rates are also influenced by cases of suicide, since when sexually abused victims cannot cope with their problem alone and are afraid to ask for help, they may resort to suicide.

Nursing Education and Preventative Programs

Nurses should take special educational programs that will later help them provide quality care for the victim of sexual abuse and his/her family. Such medical workers are called sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), and apart from taking care of the patients, they also provide important information about sexual assault and advise on the best ways to cope with that problem. The other official duties of SANE include visiting educational establishments and community groups and educating youths and adults about sexual violence, related issues, and safety issues. Although sexual violence is hard to prevent, nurses should inform the population about the possible measures they can undertake since all people are equally prone to it.

In conclusion, it is evident from the facts above that sexual assault is an acute problem that needs radical measures to combat. Sexual violence equally affects all society representatives despite their gender, race or age. To cope with the problem, it is crucial to properly assess, diagnose, and treat its victims. In addition, nurses should receive special education to help people deal with the negative effects of sexual abuse.

📎 References:

1. 40% of women with severe mental illness are victims of rape or attempted. (2014, September 4). UCL News. Retrieved from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2014/sep/40-women-severe-mental-illness-are-victims-rape-or-attempted-rape.
2. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2014). Child sexual abuse. In Facts for Families pages.
3. Barrera, M., Calderon, L., & Bell, V. (2013). The cognitive impact of sexual abuse and PTSD in children: A neuropsychological study. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 22, 625‑638.
4. McLean, C. P., Herrick Morris, S., Conklin, P., Jayawickreme, N., & Foa, E. B. (2014). Trauma characteristics and post-traumatic stress disorder among adolescent survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 29, 559‑566.
5. Ullman, S. E., Peter-Hagene, L. C., & Relyea, M. (2014). Coping, emotion regulation, and self-blame as mediators of sexual abuse and psychological symptoms in adult sexual assault. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 23, 74‑93.