Experiencing sexual violence in mid-adolescence is associated with a marked increased in severe psychological distress, according to new research published in The Lancet Psychiatry. Research has consistently demonstrated that women and girls tend to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm from adolescence onwards compared to their male counterparts, and the new findings could help to explain this gender difference.
“The gender gap that emerges in adolescents for the mental health outcomes studied is well established; however less is known about why this gap occurs and there are a lot of possible drivers of this gap,” explained study author Praveetha Patalay, a professor of population health and wellbeing at University College London. “Although sexual violence is a gendered experience, there is little investigation to-date about the role this might play in the gender-gap in mental ill-health. We wanted to estimate the impact of sexual violence in this age group and investigate whether it might contribute to the gender gap and to what extent.”
For their study, the researchers utilized data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a large nationally representative study of 19,243 families in the United Kingdom who had a child born between 2000 and 2002. They were particularly interested in data provided by 5,119 girls and 4,852 boys who participated in the longitudinal study.
When the participants were 17, they completed a self-reported questionnaire that asked whether they had experienced sexual assault or an unwelcome sexual approach in the previous 12 months. To assess psychological distress, the participants also reported how often in the last 30 days they felt: so depressed that nothing could cheer you up, hopeless, restless or fidgety, everything was an effort, worthless, and nervous. They also indicated whether they had engaged in self-harming behaviors (e.g. cutting or burning oneself) in the past 12 months.
The researchers found that sexual violence was disproportionately experienced by girls. 269 girls had experienced sexual assault and 991 girls had experienced an unwelcome sexual approach. In contrast, only 50 boys had experienced sexual assault and 251 boys had experienced unwelcome sexual approach. Those who reported experiencing sexual violence were more likely to experience severe psychological distress and to have engaged in self-harming behaviors.
“We found that one fifth of the girls reported experiences of sexual violence in mid-adolescence, which is four times higher than the number of experiences reported by boys. Overall, having experienced sexual violence in mid-adolescence increased the likelihood of experiencing mental health problems in both girls and boys,” Patalay told PsyPost.
“We also estimated that, if sexual violence did not occur, there would be a sizeable reduction in mental health problems. For instance, we were able to assess the real-world impact of preventing sexual violence for self-harm, and found an approximate 17% reduction in the number of girls self-harming (in the UK) if they had not experienced sexual violence in mid-adolescence. We would also see an approximate 15% reduction of high levels of psychological distress.”
Co-author Francesca Bentivegna added: “There is a startling tolerance to sexual violence across society, with low conviction rates for perpetrators and victim-blaming still prevalent. It’s possible this lack of serious concern for the effects of sexual violence may be having severe impacts on the mental health of victims. We need to ensure law enforcement and the legal system provide stronger deterrents and consequences for perpetrators. There is an urgent need for better tailored and targeted support for victims, to try to mitigate the potential long-term mental health impacts from sexual assault and harassment.”
The findings held even after accounting for previous psychological distress and self-harm (assessed at age 14).
“We were not surprised by the findings that sexual violence impacted on mental ill-health, however, we were certainly struck by the extent of the impact that experiences of sexual violence might cause in young adolescents,” Patalay said. “Our findings highlight how crucial it is to prevent sexual violence in order to protect teenagers’ mental health. They also highlight how these experience contribute to the gender gap, further highlighting the need for prevention to protect disproportionate impacts on teenage girls.”
The researchers also controlled for a number of other potentially confounding variables known to affect mental health, such as drug use, sexuality, parent education, family income, pubertal status, early sexual activity, relationship status, peer relationships, BMI, and other factors. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“It should be highlighted that our study had some limitations, especially with regard to the measures used to assess both sexual violence and mental health problems,” Patalay explained. “For instance, we did not have access to further relevant information such as types, frequency and severity of sexual violence experiences, nor we had information on perpetuators. Moreover, while we considered a wide range of factors that might have influenced the link between sexual violence and mental health problems, it is possible that we might have missed something. We hope that future studies will focus on this issue more and overcome these limitations.”
The study, “The impact of sexual violence in mid-adolescence on mental health: a UK population-based longitudinal study“, was published October 4, 2022.