Sexual assault, harassment damaging to long-term physical, mental health of women

New study shows that victims of sexual harassment and assault have greater risk of depression, anxiety, poor sleep, hypertension throughout their lives.

PEPPER PIKE, Ohio — Sexual harassment and assault are hot-button topics, particularly when it comes to cases brought to light years after the incidents took place. Many wonder how victims or alleged victims can move forward for so long in silence. Now a new study shows how victims don’t just brush it aside: sexual abuse can leave punishing, long-lasting impacts to women’s physical and mental health.

The #MeToo Movement, which officially started in 2007, has exploded in recent years. While it has offered people a means to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, it has yet to address the long-term consequences of these experiences.

Researchers from The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) wanted to know how these encounters impact women’s health in the long run.

“It is widely understood that sexual harassment and assault can impact women’s lives and how they function, but this study also evaluates the implications of these experiences for women’s health,” says Dr. Rebecca Thurston, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry, psychology, and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, in a release.

More than 300 women between ages 40 and 60 were surveyed for the study about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. The study also considered long-term physical and mental health outcomes. Sexual harassment was reported by 19 percent of participants, while 22 percent of participants had experienced sexual assault. Some participants (10 percent) had been both sexually harassed and assaulted.

Researchers noted that women who have experienced sexual harassment are more likely to be college educated but under financial strain.

The study also found that a history of sexual harassment predisposes the victim to higher blood pressure and other health issues such as hypertension, higher triglycerides and poorer sleep quality. Those who have experienced sexual assault were more than three times likely to have depression, and twice as likely to suffer from anxiety along with sleep quality comparable to people with insomnia. The findings held true regardless of one’s demographic and medical history.

“When it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, our study shows that lived experiences may have a serious impact on women’s health, both mental and physical,” Thurston adds in a statement to the University of Pittsburgh. “This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention.”

Researchers want health-care practitioners to be more cognizant of the connection between sexual harassment and assault and later health problems.

“The results of this study should remind healthcare providers of the need to ask questions and fully understand their patients’ histories when diagnosing and prescribing treatment for such problems as depression and sleep disorders,” says Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, NAMS executive director.

Adds Thurston: “We know that sexual harassment and assault are prevalent in our society and can cause significant harm. If you are a health care provider, recognize that these experiences can have implications for your patient’s health. If you are a victim of assault or harassment, don’t suffer through it. Get help. If you can, change the situation or remove yourself from it.”

Study results were published Oct. 3, 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine.