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Study Finds that Three-Quarters of Sexual Assault Survivors Have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Survivors of sexual assault have a higher chance of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, they can experience hypervigilance, meaning they are always on alert and feel like they are in danger

CW: Mentions of sexual assault and rape 

According to a new review published online on July 19 in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common occurrence and severe after a person experiences sexual assault.

The study was conducted by Emily R. Dworkin, Ph.D., from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a team of colleagues. They performed a systematic literature review and meta-analysis to determine how common and severe PTSD is after sexual assault and noted any changes to the average recovery rate in the 12 months after sexual assault.

The researchers based their findings on 22 identified studies (2,106 sexual assault survivors). Approximately 74.6 percent of people met diagnostic criteria for PTSD within the first month after sexual assault, while about 41.5 percent met the requirements at the 12-month mark.  

The intensity of PTSD symptoms was roughly 47.9 percent of maximum severity at one month after the sexual assault and 29.9 percent at 12 months. Also, the average recovery rate was much slower following the first three months after sexual assault.

Learn more: What Does Consent Look Like and Why Is It Important?

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis that occurs following a dangerous event. Some people can get PTSD from experiencing the event; others can get it from witnessing a disturbing event.  

Some common symptoms of PTSD could include flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, and intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts about the trauma. 

Many folks who experience traumatic events can struggle to adjust to daily life; however, after some time and utilizing self-care tools like counseling; they will see improvements in coping with the trauma. If the symptoms start to get worse and last for a long time, whether it’s months or years, and you find that it’s difficult to function in your daily life, you could have PTSD.

Getting the proper treatment for PTSD symptoms is essential for reducing symptoms and improving daily functioning.

What Is the Connection Between Sexual Assault and PTSD?

Sexual assault is when a person experiences unwanted sexual contact or behavior. Examples of sexual assault include rape, attempted rape, unwanted touching, sexual coercion, and many more.

Sexual assault happens at an alarming rate in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that 1 in 3 female-identifying folks and 1 in 4 male-identifying individuals experience sexual violence with physical contact at some point throughout their lives. Also, those who have survived childhood sexual assault will likely be assaulted in their adult lives. 

People who experience sexual assault will likely encounter high levels of distress following the event. The trauma of sexual assault can create many feelings, like anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and fear. There is also the stigma that comes with sexual assault, which may add to the distress. It can cause survivors to feel shame. 

As previously mentioned, survivors of sexual assault have a higher chance of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, they can experience hypervigilance, meaning they are always on alert and feel like they are in danger. It can also impact their trust in people, and many sexual assault survivors may distrust others.

Is There Hope for Sexual Assault Survivors Who Struggle With PTSD?

This new study from Dworkin and her team has a hopeful message. According to Dworkin: ”One of the main takeaways is that the majority of recovery from post-traumatic stress happens in [the] first three months. We hope this will give survivors and clinicians a sense of what to expect and convey some hope.”

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Billie Olsen

MODEL: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.