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UCL researchers estimate that the prevalence of serious mental health problems among 17-year-olds could be reduced by 16.8% for girls and 8.4% for boys if they were not exposed to sexual abuse, such as sexual assault and harassment. .

A new study published today in the Lancet Psychiatryuses information from 9,971 youth born in the UK between 2000 and 2002, followed by the Millennium Cohort Study. By age 17, just over 1,000 girls and 260 boys reported having experienced it sexual violence or unwanted sexual contact in the past 12 months.

The researchers found that rates of two serious mental health problems – serious psychological distress and self-harm – were on average higher among victims than among those who did not report having sex. an assault or harassment at this age. This was true even when taking into account a wide range of other factors known to influence risk in adolescents sexual violence and mental health.

The authors estimated that in a hypothetical scenario where sexual assault and harassment were eliminated, the rate of self-harm among teenage girls could decrease by 16.8%, from the current level of 28.9% in the world with these forms of sexual violence to 24% (a decrease of five percentage points) in the world without them. In addition, high levels of psychological stress can decrease by 14% (22.6% vs. 19.5%).

The researchers expected that among boys, rates of self-harm could decrease by 8.4% (20.3% vs. 18.6%) and severe psychological distress by 3.7% (10.2% vs. 9.8%). , when sexual violence and harassment will be eradicated.

Co-author Professor Pravita Patalai (UCL Center for Longitudinal Research and MRC Lifelong Health and Aging Unit at UCL) said: “Based on these findings, we can estimate, for example, that 4,900 out of every 100,000 girls will be less likely to self harm if sexual violence and harassment among this age group can be prevented. It is vital that we better understand the impact of sexual violence on mental health problems, particularly among girls who disproportionately experience both of these things. Our findings suggest that sexual violence and harassment may be an important contributor to the gender gap in mental health that emerges in adolescence.”

In general, reports of sexual harassment were significantly more common among the 17-year-olds surveyed than reports of sexual violence. Just over 19% of girls and 5% of boys reported that someone had made an “unwanted sexual approach” to them in the past 12 months. In comparison, about 5% of girls and 1% of boys reported being sexually assaulted by someone in the past year.

The researchers compared the mental health of victims of sexual violence and harassment with other young people who were similar to them in terms of personal and family characteristics, physical health, previous mental health problems, sexual development and social relationships.

They also examined the relationship between experiencing sexual violence or harassment and attempting suicide. At some point before the age of 17, more than 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 25 boys report having harmed themselves by attempting suicide. These young people are more likely to have recently experienced sexual violence or harassment at age 17 than those who have never attempted suicide. However, it was not possible to know from these data whether their suicide attempt was before or after the sexual assault.

Co-author Francesca Bentivegna (IOE Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL Faculty of Education and Society) said: “There is a staggering tolerance of sexual violence across society, with low conviction rates for perpetrators and continued victim blaming. It is possible that the lack of serious concern about the consequences of sexual violence can have serious consequences for the mental health of victims. We have to make sure that Enforcement and the legal system provides stronger deterrents and consequences for criminals. There is an urgent need for more tailored and targeted support for victims to try to mitigate the potential long-term mental health consequences of sexual assault and harassment.”

Limitations of the study

The authors noted several limitations of their study. Sexual abuse is known to go unreported, and the authors acknowledge that adolescents with and without serious mental health problems may differ in their likelihood of reporting such incidents.

The authors were unable to examine a broader range of sexual abuse, such as specific experiences of online sexual harassment, as these were not captured in the data. Information about the perpetrators, severity or frequency of sexual assaults and harassment was also not available.

Finally, because this is an observational study, the authors noted the challenges of establishing cause and effect. The study uses highly detailed data to account for a wide range of factors that may have influenced the association between experiences of sexual violence and harassment and serious mental health problems. However, it would be impossible to rule out the influence of all possible factors with certainty.


Women’s experiences of sexual violence and harassment are associated with high blood pressure


Additional information:
The impact of adolescent sexual abuse on mental health: a UK population-based longitudinal study. Lancet Psychiatry (2022). DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(22)00271-1

Citation: Ending sexual violence may reduce poor mental health among adolescents (2022, October 4) Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-10-sexual-violence-poor-mental-health. html

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