The far-reaching consequences of dealing with sexual abuse

Sexual harassment mental healthCC: Sasint at Pixabay

In a recent landmark case, a panel at Alexandria Federal Court decided that the Fairfax County School Board is not responsible for the sexual harassment one student encountered on a school trip. The decision likely came as a blow to the victim, who has since existed in a state of insecurity that has deprived her of her educational access.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and assault are topics that are rarely far from the headlines. Although the movement focuses heavily on the events themselves, it’s rare that we hear much about the medical consequences. Anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of substance abuse disorder are just some of the perils that victims face.

Fluctuating anxiety that ruins careers

As we’ve seen in the most recent case, anxiety can fluctuate and become overwhelming to the point that the victim’s future is ruined. There’s a paucity of reliable studies investigating these events. According to one study that focused on college-age victims of sexual harassment, anxiety levels reach the stage where sleep becomes difficult.

With regards to those who are still in education, fluctuating anxiety and a lack of sleep will make their achievements sporadic. When a victim feels capable of facing the world one day, they may make enough strides to perform well. Said performance is soon undone when their anxiety reaches the point where they cannot face venturing into the arena where the harassment took place. In many cases, this is compounded by a lack of support from academic governing bodies.

The end result? Previously promising students have their academic attainments and future careers ruined.

Depressive symptoms become more common

Many workplaces steer away from defining what constitutes sexual harassment. This is especially common in customer or client-facing roles, which leaves the individual employee to determine what sexual harassment is in accordance with their own personal boundaries.

In many respects, allowing employees to establish what their boundaries are is a good move. However, a lack of organizational intervention also means employees feel unsure of their perceptions. Combined with sexual harassment events, this results in an increased risk of depressive symptoms.

At the lower end of the scale, those depressive symptoms may allow the employee’s workplace problems to tip into their home life. When the problem becomes more severe, they’ll struggle to maintain their usual performance. When workplaces don’t create clear policies, the harasser is then free to continue with their behavior unchallenged. To the person being harassed, this creates a sense of uncertainty that deepens their depression.

Substance abuse disorders become more likely

In the absence of adequate support and protection, victims of sexual harassment seek a means of escape. Sexual abuse victims are 26 times more likely to use drugs and 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.

As a form of self-medication, substance abuse disorder initially helps victims battle against feelings of loneliness and isolation. When their disorder continues, they become neurobiologically dependent on the substance they’re abusing. As a result, they need to use more of it to achieve the same effect. Even when their addiction can no longer be classed as pleasurable, it still feels like a viable alternative to facing the reality of their abuse.

With all this in mind, how can we help victims of sexual harassment? Acceptance, acknowledgment, and a non-judgmental attitude all go a long way. When it comes to non-violent forms of harassment, it’s never been more important that we don’t try to minimize a victim’s experience.

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About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.