Sexual harassment and assault affects women’s psychological and physical health later in life

October 3, 2018, 8:13 PM

Sexual harassment and assault are psychologically traumatizing, but a new study has linked these attacks with long-term physical health consequences as well.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that women who had experienced harassment or assault were about twice as likely to have elevated blood pressure and insomnia.

"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," Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry at the Pitt School of Medicine and the study’s senior author said in a press release. "This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention."

The new research was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recruited 304 nonsmoking women between the ages of 40 and 60 from the local community and recorded their blood pressure, weight and height. The women answered brief questionnaires that asked about sexual harassment, assault, and any depressive/anxiety symptoms and sleep disturbances. One in five of the women reported a history of sexual assault or workplace harassment . Researchers found that women who had experienced this trauma were more likely to have high blood pressure, poor sleep and significant depressive symptoms and anxiety. Researchers concluded that efforts aimed at improving women’s health should target sexual harassment and assault prevention as well, and that it’s a link that doctors should ask about.

Below are some answers to common questions about sexual harassment and sexual assault.

What is sexual harassment?

Uninvited, unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate. The term was coined and popularized by Lin Farley at Cornell University in 1975.

What is sexual assault?

Illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent.

How many women might this research impact?

Sexual harassment and assault are prevalent in our society and cause significant harm. In the U.S. more than one-third of adult women report having experienced sexual assault, and between 40 and 75 percent have endured harassment in the workplace.

A woman in crisis is pictured crying in this undated stock photo.
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What are some of the mental health impacts?

Self-blame and isolation are often the norm for victims of sexual trauma, according to licensed psychotherapist Dr. Tiffanie Davis.

"Anger is also a well-known response to trauma, but it is a secondary emotion from hurt and disappointment,” Davis told ABC News. “It’s not uncommon for women who experienced trauma to suffer from flashbacks and panic attacks as part of post-traumatic stress disorder. They can also develop substance abuse issues or have suicide attempts or have full on Major depressive disorder.”

Personal care like diet, exercise and sleep can also become a challenge when someone is suffering through intense psychological challenges, and can be one of the early signs of depression.

What are some of the physical impacts?

According the American Academy of Family Physicians, some of the medical impacts associated with sexual trauma include chronic pain (pelvis, back), headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, sexual dysfunction, elevated blood pressure, and heartburn. These ailments may be initiated by psychological issues, but they are not “imaginary.” Psychological pain can lead to physical pain.

What can one do if sexually assaulted?

- Find a safe place away from the assailant.

- Call a close friend or family member.

- Go to an emergency room so that you can be examined and given medicine to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections.

- Do not try to “clean up” before you see a doctor or nurse because you might wash away evidence.

- Find a mental health counselor.

What are some of the long term consequences of sexual trauma?

“Damage to future relationships can occur and therefore any events must be reviewed and worked through no matter when it happened,” said Dr. Davis. “Major Depressive disorder and post-traumatic disorder are known mental health impacts and long term consequences of abuse.”

There is also a phenomenon called “secondary trauma,” when the victim reports the event to someone in authority, and that person does not take any appropriate steps to address the situation.

Can you talk to your doctor about trauma?

Yes, and it’s very important for you to talk about your physical and emotional history with your doctor. They are trained to keep information private. If you are uncomfortable speaking in front of office staff, ask for a one-on-one interaction or consider finding a provider you are comfortable speaking with.

“We know that sexual harassment and assault are prevalent in our society and can cause significant harm,” the study’s lead author said. “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.” publishes a list of mental health professionals and their specialization.

Dr. Tambetta Ojong is a family medicine resident at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and a part of the ABC News Medical Unit