Nearly half of all children with some form of psychological problem have a history of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Adult survivors of CSA often develop significant mental health issues as a result. Feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem can lead to internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression. People who have been victims of CSA have much higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than those who have experienced other forms of abuse. Although it has been proven that there are links between CSA and psychological well-being, understanding the prevalence of CSA in the adult population is essential in order to design and implement interventions to address the mental health issues that result from this type of abuse. Also, it is important to understand how frequency and type of CSA affects mental well-being.
To this end, Gabriela Pérez-Fuentes of the New York State Psychiatric Institute rand the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University recently conducted an analysis of data collected from over 34,000 adults who were part of a larger study. She found that just over 10% of the participants had experienced some form of CSA, 75% of whom were women. She also discovered that other forms of abuse, including neglect, physical abuse, and general maltreatment were more likely to occur in those individuals with a history of CSA than in those without. These same individuals had higher rates of mental health problems and suicide attempts when compared to participants with no history of CSA.
Pérez-Fuentes also found that the type and frequency abuse was directly correlated with suicide attempts and severity of mental health problems. Although all of the CSA survivors demonstrated some form of psychological, behavioral, and academic issue, those who had experienced repeated traumas were more likely to suffer with significant mood, substance, or anxiety issues. Posttraumatic stress and attention deficit were also common in this group of participants, even if the abuse did not include forced sexual intercourse. The more instances of abuse the participants had, the more intense were their symptoms. But for individuals with forced sexual intercourse, the number of abuse instances was not directly related to symptom severity. Pérez-Fuentes believes this suggests that even one CSA that includes penetration has the potential to severely traumatize an individual to the point of psychological impairment. In fact, suicide attempts were highest among people who had experienced CSA with penetration, particularly if perpetrated by a family member, such as a father or step-father. However, all CSA survivors in committed relationships were at risk for intimacy and relational problems. Pérez-Fuentes says that clinicians working with couples and individuals should be aware of CSA history in order to attend to present psychological problems. She concluded, “Interventions that prevent and treat CSA can greatly decrease the suffering of the survivors and contribute to improved mental health.”
Pérez-Fuentes, Gabriela, et al. (2013). Prevalence and correlates of child sexual abuse: A national study. Comprehensive psychiatry 54.1 (2013): 16-27. ProQuest. Web.
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