When I was a child and teenager cancer was spoken of quietly. More openness has helped people understand cancer and the treatments available, and people living with cancer feel less isolated. Despite various fly on the wall documentaries, celebrity autobiographies, and social media, there are still some subjects that are not talked about, and two are marked this month: sexual abuse and mental health.
in the year to March 2017 20% of women and 4% of men were estimated to have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16
(source Crime Survey for England and Wales)
each year 1 in 4 people experience issues with their mental health
(source Time to Change)
Those are the only statistics I want to quote because it is the lived experience of people I am interested in. People who have experienced sexual violence or abuse, and people who live with mental ill-health, and live in the shadow of silence and stigma.
There is a connection between child sexual abuse and adult mental ill-health. That is not to say that everyone who has experience of mental distress was abused as a child, or that every adult abused as a child has mental ill health, but a lot do. People may use street drugs or alcohol to deal with their emotions or feelings of worthlessness; may develop disordered eating; experience distance from their body, being unable to fully inhabit themselves because it feels unsafe; suffer debilitating self-loathing (abusers are very accomplished at transferring the blame from themselves to those they abuse, particularly to children); feel shame that they are to blame because of the narratives of rape and sexual assault in the media and in society; have emotional and physical flashbacks; suffer with anxiety and depression.
None of this is to diminish the experience of people living with mental ill-health who haven’t experienced sexual abuse or sexual violence. There are many forces involved in mental health and ill-health, including social, psychological, and economic factors. Common ones are loss and grief (particularly where it is unresolved or feels forbidden), relationship difficulties, economic stress, and inadequate emotional support in childhood (more on this in a future blog).
And there is hope. I wrote my Masters’ dissertation about the experience of the death of a child sexual abuser on the survivor. My reading showed that many of the consequences of child sexual abuse continue in to adulthood, and that the experience of abuse continues to be isolating. All of my dissertation research participants were counsellors or counsellors in training. Change came for them by being able to name what happened and be believed and supported. This is so important for survivors of abuse.
With silence and stigma comes experience of being isolated, being unable to share what happened or how you feel because of shame, or the fear of being not understood or not believed. No-one should be forced to tell others what happened to them, however I feel there is a necessity to listen carefully and compassionately to the lives of others when they feel safe to share. And not turn our backs because the subject is difficult. It takes bravery to risk disclosure, and another sort of courage to listen with compassion and acceptance.