Survivors of sexual assault are often traumatized as a result of the violence perpetrated against them. But not all survivors develop posttraumatic stress (PTSD). In fact, a large majority of women who have been sexually assaulted may initially demonstrate symptoms of trauma and PTSD, but for many, these symptoms dissipate or even disappear in the weeks and months after the assault.
Understanding why some women develop PTSD and some don’t after a sexual assault could help clinicians identify those most in need of treatment. PTSD can impair a person’s ability to function, socially interact with others, and work. The symptoms of PTSD can be treated and managed, and the outlook is more hopeful with early intervention.
One researcher named Ask Elklit, MSc, of the National Center for Psychotraumatology in Denmark, wanted to find out what factors put people at risk for PTSD following a sexual assault. Elklit recently conducted a study involving 148 women who had recently survived a sexual assault. Elklit hypothesized that risk factors for sexual assault-related PTSD would differ from those related to other forms of PTSD, such as violent crimes, emotional trauma, national disaster, or war. Therefore, Elklit looked at factors specifically related to the assault, including number of perpetrators, relationship to the perpetrator, nature of the sexual assault, support received after the assault, and prior sexual trauma. Elkli also looked at personality as a predictor of PTSD in the survivors.
The results revealed that 70% of all of the survivors had extreme trauma as a result of their assaults, and almost half had symptoms of PTSD. Surprisingly however, none of the contextual factors increased risk of PTSD. Instead, Elklit discovered that negative affect and prior trauma, specifically nonsexual trauma, both directly increased risk of PTSD. Although unexpected, these findings should not be considered entirely novel, as negative affect has been repeatedly shown to be associated with a host of psychological conditions, including PTSD.
“However, we find it puzzling that most trauma studies do not take this variable into account,” said Elklit. “The results of this study highlight the importance of doing so in future studies.” Further, these results highlight the need for more comprehensive and immediate crisis intervention efforts aimed at identifying those individuals most at risk for developing PTSD in the aftermath of a sexual assault.
Elklit, Ask, MSc, and Dorte M. Christiansen, MSc. (2013). Risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder in female help-seeking victims of sexual assault. Violence and Victims 28.3 (2013): 552-68. ProQuest. Web.
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