How Does Sexual Assault Impact a Person’s Mental Health?  

1Veterans who return home often struggle with the transition. Some will struggle with reconnecting to family and friends they left behind to serve. Others will struggle with mental and physical health issues. Yet more veterans may turn to substances to cope. While there are many ways veterans can struggle upon return, a percentage of those veterans experience sexual assault while serving. Childhood trauma can rear its ugly head, too, causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other challenges. Learn more about the impact of sexual assault on a person’s mental health and how that plays out in their return from service overseas.

Types of Sexual Assault

Women are the most likely to experience rape or assault while serving in the military. Civilian women are also at risk of being assaulted. Sexual abuse happens to women as children, teens, young adults, and as grown women. Boys and men are also subjected to various types of sexual assaults. The reality is nobody is immune to it but knowing the types of assault that exist helps people to understand it better, be educated, and learn how to support a loved one who may be struggling in the aftermath of an assault. 

  • Rape is forced sexual contact without consent. Date rape is included in this as well as marital violence and rape, forcible sexual contact, and various forms of assault
  • Abuse of children can happen by people they know within the family, friends, loved ones, or strangers. It is more likely to be perpetrated by someone they know. This can include photographs being taken and exploited online, physical contact, or grooming over the internet
  • Non-consensual contact is unwanted touching or experiencing advances the person did not want. Attempted rape falls into this category
  • Non-contact sexual abuse can also fall into emotional abuse as well with parents or caregivers making suggestive, inappropriate comments, acting inappropriately in front of children, or revenge porn sites which publish photos of people without consent when they are using those images against them

Violence in the Military

Sexual assault and violence in the military can occur to both men and women. Due to the ratios of men to women in the military, men are more likely to experience sexual violence than women. There is also a stigma against this, not just because it is the military, but also due to the culture not always believing assault victims and survivors. Service members often under-report this crime. Retaliation is a big fear among male survivors (and female) who want to tell superiors what happened. They may be pushed aside for promotions, blamed for the assault, or not believed and even demoted. Survivors of both genders can face consequences professionally which may even lead to discharge from the military. 

Male Survivors of Abuse

Men who experience assault can face severe stigma and avoidance of the reality they can also experience assault. When men report, they often face doubt and shaming. They are blamed for not being ‘man enough,’ or for being weak. Due to stigma, they are more likely to hide the assault and less likely to label it abuse. They may not even try to report it and self-harm or try to find other ways of coping with the trauma. Mental health issues can occur, along with addiction. 

Mental Health and Assault

When sexual assault occurs, survivors may feel they are not able to handle the challenge alone. They hide behind shame and guilt, blaming themselves for the assault. Due to the trauma, they are at greater risk for mental health conditions. Survivors of sexual abuse may develop:

  • Depressive symptoms: this can feel hopeless and like nothing is going to get better. This occurs especially if they are feeling unheard, invalidated, and have not had trauma addressed with any type of therapy
  • Anxiety: the body holds trauma inside of it, which can come out as rage, anger, and anxious thoughts or feelings. They  may feel afraid to leave their house and have a chronic fear of the world around them, including anyone or anything that reminds them of the assault
  • PTSD: a person who experiences sexual assault may experience memories of the abuse, flashbacks that disrupt their daily activities, and feelings of fear or anxiety. Complex posttraumatic stress (C-PTSD) can yield chronic fear and disruption to a person’s life
  • Addiction: survivors of assault and sexual abuse are more likely to use drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings, thoughts, and fears they have. It may lead to other mental health complications down the road

Sexual abuse and assault can lead to a person feeling worthless and ashamed. On top of this, they may have chronic pain issues or suffer from physical disabilities from serving. It is very important people who experience trauma receive treatment, care, and trauma-informed therapeutic support. This will help them process the experience in a healthy way and find hope for the future. If they connect to other people who understand what they’re dealing with, they tend to feel less alone and isolated. The key is to get them support, connection to treatment, and a community that can help them feel people care about their well-being.

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