The impacts that childhood sexual abuse has on survivors in adulthood may be vast and varied. Some adult survivors experience no or very few mental health problems, while others experience many and severe mental health problems.
Sexual abuse is a kind of trauma and the effects of trauma include a complex combination of factors:
- The amount of any kind of other trauma you may have experienced
- The age you experienced abuse
- Your relationship with the abuser/s
- How long the abuse lasted
- How other people have responded to your disclosures (eg: whether you’ve been believed/ they became angry etc)
Some of the most common effects you may have experienced are as follows:
- FEAR your abuser may have forced secrecy upon you or threatened you and your family if you tell them. Sexual abuse is usually accompanied by coercion, bribery, physical and emotional abuse and threats. You may have been afraid to tell because of what the consequences might be. e.g. punishment, blame, abandonment or not being believed.
- Helplessness/powerlessness. Maybe you felt that as a child, you had no control over your life or even your own body. You may have felt that you had no choice about what was happening to you.
- Guilt and Shame. You may have known something was wrong but blamed yourself. Your abuser may have made you to feel that the abuse was your fault.
- Your abuser probably made you feel responsible for keeping the abuse a secret. You may even have felt like it was your responsibility to keep the family together. The burden of this responsibility interferes with experiencing a normal childhood.
- Isolation. Abuse survivors often feel ‘different’ from other children. They usually have to keep secrets and deal with a lot of stress alone. This could have isolated you from non-offending parents and brothers and sisters.
- Children who are abused feel betrayed – children are dependent upon adults for nurturing and protection and the abuser was probably someone who you should have been able to love and trust. You may also feel betrayed by a non-abusing parent who you feel failed to protect you.
- This might be one of the strongest feelings you have about your abuse. You may feel anger against the abuser and against others who you feel failed to protect you.
- You may feel grief due to a sense of loss, especially if the abuser was loved and trusted. You may grieve your lost innocence or the fact that you had to grow up too fast.
- These can be like nightmares while you are awake. They are a re-experiencing of the sexual abuse and you may experience all the feelings again which you felt at the time of the abuse. This can be extremely frightening.
- Loss of trust in others
- Impact on relationships: Survivor’s relationships may be characterised by lower expectations and satisfaction. An increased risk of domestic violence and greater likelihood of separation and divorce may occur as a result.
- Increased risk taking and low self-worth
- Psychological effects: survivors of sexual abuse are 3 times more likely to develop psychological disorders in adulthood. Adults with a history of sexual abuse often present for treatment with a secondary mental health issue, which can include the following:
- Depression or feeling ‘low’
- Post Traumatic Stress
- Low self esteem
- Eating disorders
- Drug addiction
- Alcohol use / dependency
- Suicide attempts / self harm and self mutilation
- Dissociative disorders or episodes of dissociating or ‘splitting out’
- Personality Disorders
- Bi-polar disorders
- Adults with a history of abuse as a child, especially sexual abuse, are more likely than people with no history of abuse to become frequent users of GP, emergency and medical care services
Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more likely than the others to experience physical health problems such as diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, headaches, gynaecological problems, stroke, hepatitis and heart disease.