PTSD plagues sexual assault survivors one month later

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Three out of four survivors of sexual assault experience significant post-traumatic stress one month later but researchers hope those affected will find some solace in the knowledge that symptoms generally subside as the months wear on.

A meta-analysis published in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse found that 81 per cent of survivors of sexual assault experience serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder one week after the incident but that this number drops to 75 per cent at the one-month mark — the earliest date that PTSD can be diagnosed. After three months, 54 per cent of survivors still feel symptoms; by the one year mark, the number has dropped to 41 per cent.

“One of the main takeaways is that the majority of recovery from post-traumatic stress happens in first three months,” said Emily Dworkin, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “We hope this will give survivors and clinicians a sense of what to expect and convey some hope.”

Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not on the decline, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. While the reluctance to report a sexual assault makes it difficult to get a sense of its scope, 553,000 women self-reported an incident to police in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. Women accounted for 92 per cent of sexual assaults reported to police in 2008. The impact of sexual assault and related offences extend far beyond the survivors themselves and cost the Canadian economy an estimated $4.8-billion in 2008.

Post-traumatic stress can take a heavy toll on survivors, researchers said, often forcing people to relive painful events in the form of nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. The trauma can lead to an increase in negative emotions, a decrease in positive emotions and a tendency for a person to blame themselves for events beyond their control.

The meta-analysis, which looked at 22 studies involving 2,106 sexual assault survivors, revealed that symptoms of PTSD are common in the aftermath of such events. It also pointed to some interventions that are available to help those in need, including Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. Prolonged exposure teaches survivors how to slowly approach and process the memories, feelings and situations connected to their trauma, gradually learning that these cues are not harmful and do not need to be avoided. Cognitive processing is a form of behavioural therapy that helps patients challenge and alter unhelpful beliefs connected to their trauma.

Dworkin and her colleagues are currently working on ways to accelerate the healing process for survivors of sexual assault, including the use of a mobile phone app designed to help people develop evidence-based coping skills that can help them process their trauma.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, there are a wealth of resources available online to help navigate the road to recovery. The Canadian Women’s Health Network, a coalition of researchers, activists, mothers, daughters and caregivers, is a good place to start. While the decision to report an assault is a personal one, gathering information and understanding the nature of trauma will help the healing process begin.

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