Sex abuse link to high rates of mental illness
A study published today reveals that as many as a quarter of Australian women have experienced some form of assault or sexual abuse
A study published today reveals that as many as a quarter of Australian women have experienced some form of assault or sexual abuse.
Researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of NSW also found that a high proportion of the abused women suffered from alarmingly high rates of mental illness - up to three times higher than the general population.
Public health expert Dr Susan Rees, who led the research, says she is especially concerned about the suicide rate of women who are abused.
"What we found was that there's a high association or a strong association between exposure to gender-based violence and all the three broad classes of mental disorder - so that includes mood, anxiety, substance abuse - and a very high association with attempted suicide," she said.
"Women who've not experienced gender-based violence have about a 1.6 per cent rate of attempted suicide and that increased to 6 per cent of women who had experienced one type of gender-based violence.
"Then for those women who had experienced more - like three to four types - that rose to 34 per cent."
Another alarming statistic uncovered is how many younger women and girls are abused.
The median age for those abused is 13, and Dr Rees says many more sexual assaults are not reported so the figure could be higher.
"Because we're not open about this problem in society enough, then women and young girls are not able to disclose [that] easily and so it's something that remains under-reported," she said.
Karen Willis, who runs the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, says the level of abuse against women is a national disgrace.
She acknowledges anti-violence campaigns and counselling have helped but says more needs to be done.
"We cannot continue to allow such appalling violence to be inflicted on our population, especially in the knowledge of the terrible mental health impacts that sexual assault and domestic violence has," she said.
Ms Willis says sexual abuse is under-reported because of society's attitude to those who experience this sort of violence.
"When someone says 'I've been sexually assaulted', we want to know where they were, what they were doing, how they were dressed, how they were behaving, had they been drinking, had they had sex before, had they had sex before with that person - 20 million questions including did they say no - before we make a decision about whether we're even going to believe that this person is telling us about having experienced a serious crime," she said.
"Those attitudes, that blame the victim or look for excuses for the offender's behaviour, impact greatly on people's capacity to say 'I've experienced a shocking crime'."
Time for action
But Ms Willis says there are other reasons.
"One is that we know that in 70 per cent of sexual assaults the offender is well known to the victim," she said.
"Most commonly it's a family member, close family friend, someone the person works or goes to school with.
"So there's other issues, you know, taking the husband - the father of your children to court for sexual assault, making a report about your dad for sexual assault, making a report about your boss, making a report about someone you've got to go and sit next to in a classroom next week, creates all sorts of other difficulties, and of course there's fear of the criminal justice process."
The Greens say the report highlights the need for urgent policy action.
NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon says it is time government policy reflected the severity of the problem.
"We've known this trend has been there for a long time and it does really put pressure on the Government, and indeed all political parties, that we need to ensure that these issues do not fall through the cracks," she said.
"And we need to be looking at funding of rape counselling services and refuges and the other intervention programs that are available to ensure that the funding is reliable. And one the Greens are looking at is should they come under the health funding in a more extensive way."
The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.