It's widely recognized that sexual harassment and assault can affect people's mental health. But now a new study suggests with more certainty than ever that such incidents could also have a lasting negative impact on people's overall health.
That's the finding of a study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, which concludes that, among middle-aged women, a history of sexual assault was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and poor sleep. A history of workplace sexual harassment was associated with clinically significant sleep problems as well as increased odds of high blood pressure and higher levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. The latter two are risk factors for heart disease, the number-one killer of women in the US.
The researchers didn't know their paper would be released as sexual assault dominates headlines, just days after Christine Blasey Ford testified before a Senate committee that she experiences "anxiety, phobia, and PTSD-like symptoms" as a result of allegedly being sexually assaulted in the 80s by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the new study is the latest in a line of research that has found connections between sexual harassment and assault and worse health outcomes overall.
Still, the majority of previous papers had been based on self-reported health data, which isn't the gold standard in research. In this new study, women were examined by physicians and they completed scientifically validated surveys to assess depression and anxiety.
The data comes from a group of 304 healthy women between the ages of 40 and 60 who were originally recruited for a study on heart health and menopause. The team asked women whether they'd ever been sexually harassed at work or ever sexually assaulted—19 percent of the women reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment, 22 percent reported experiencing sexual assault, and 10 percent experienced both. (Those stats are lower than national estimates, but researchers excluded from the study women who smoked and those who took certain medications, including SSRI antidepressants and meds for heart conditions.)
The authors found that women who'd experienced sexual assault were nearly three times more likely to experience symptoms consistent with major depressive disorder and more than twice as likely to have elevated anxiety levels compared to those who hadn't. Women who'd been sexually harassed had higher rates of elevated blood pressure compared to women who hadn't. Both assault and harassment were associated with poor sleep consistent with clinical insomnia. These associations still existed even after researchers took medical history and socioeconomic factors into account. And the authors note that poor sleep, depressed mood, and anxiety are all linked to worse health outcomes.
The study can't prove the incidents caused these women's mental and physical health problems, but the authors called for more research that measures health outcomes like this study did. They also urged healthcare providers to consider that their patients' trauma histories can affect their health.
"We know that sexual harassment and assault are prevalent in our society and can cause significant harm," senior study author Rebecca Thurston, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine said in a release. "If you are a healthcare 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.
"This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention."
If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual abuse you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.