Sexual Assault Victims Often Lose Coping Skills

Filed under: In The News

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Young girls who are sexually assaulted often grow up less able to deal with stress and are prone to depression, obesity, anxiety and other mental and emotional problems.

MSNBC reports researchers from the University of Southern California and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center studied assault victims and found they produce a high level of cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone."

But it's likely they deplete their bodies' cortisol accounts early.

As they grow older, they have usually lower cortisol levels, and, researchers tell MSNBC, the human body relies on that hormone to deal with day-to-day stress and anxiety. Women might start turning to drugs, alcohol, food and other forms of self-medication.

However, researchers tell MSNBC that doesn't mean all sexual abuse survivors are condemned to lives of misery and despair.

"These women are more likely to have problems in mental health and physical health than those who haven't been abused," lead researcher and child psychologist Penelope Trickett tells MSNBC. "But it really varies to what degree they are disabled by these challenges. Some are managing their lives pretty well, considering what they went through."

Researchers tracked a group of girls who had been sexually assaulted by males in their families. The girls ranged in age from 6 to 16 and were tracked for 23 years, starting in 1987. The girls had higher rates of depression and obesity, as well as problems regulating brain chemicals compared with a control group of girls who were not abused. The girls were assessed six times at varying ages and developmental stages.

"The cortisol levels wound up looking like Vietnam vets," researcher Frank Putnam tells MSNBC. "That tells us they are in a chronic state of stress and never feel safe."

Trickett tells MSNBC the long-term effects of the abuse "were absolutely profound."

"It's just not mental health issues," she says. "Some of these women are suffering from a lot of problems today like sleep issues, poor health utilization and have a lot of risky behaviors. It's very disturbing."

Many abuse victims may not realize why they they are having so many problems in life, she tells MSNBC, adding that maybe this study can provide a few answers.

"A woman came up to me once at a talk and identified herself as a childhood victim of sexual abuse and thanked me for these findings and for trying to shed light on this issue," Trickett tells the network.

And perhaps the research can help future generations, she adds.

"From my perspective, this data, especially regarding cortisol levels, can help professionals identify kids who may be at risk much earlier," Trickett says. "We need to sensitize people and then find ways to help kids be safe."


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.