Neuroscientific research has confirmed the lasting harm from childhood sexual abuse. Early childhood development is a particularly sensitive time. A young person’s sensory systems are learning how to process emotions. The brain is forming connections in response to one’s physical environment, and extremely active limbic systems are developing long-term survival strategies.
Intense or repeated trauma during this period can significantly disturb a child’s development, causing a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, dissociation, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, and substance abuse.
If you or a loved one has suffered any of the above after a history of childhood sexual abuse, contact a Dallas sexual abuse victim lawyer. Schedule a free consultation to find out what options now exist for recovering financial compensation, pursuing legal justice, seeking therapy, and starting life anew.
How Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects Adult Mental Health
Childhood experiences play a significant role in shaping adult mental health. Survivors of sexual abuse commonly report some or all of the following mental health symptoms:
- Chronic Depression: The sexually abused have up to 4x greater risk of developing chronic depression. By some estimates, 60 percent of women exposed to sexual violence can be classified as clinically depressed. Feelings of overwhelming sadness, diminished energy, poor concentration, and disturbed sleep often follow.
- Dissociative Disorders: Ongoing trauma, particularly childhood sexual abuse, is thought to be the root cause of the majority of dissociative disorders. Used as a coping mechanism, characteristics of dissociation include: feeling cut off from the body as if watching a movie, lack of a sense of identity, or emotional detachment from reality. When experienced long-term, disassociation leads to impairments in daily functioning, at the workplace, and in relationships.
- Anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Women’s Health reports that 70 percent of sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe forms of distress, with symptoms surfacing right away or years later. PTSD may take the form of nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories, pangs of guilt or shame, or intense waves of fear and panic. Over time, physical manifestations like gastrointestinal upsets, muscle cramps, headaches, high blood pressure, heart disease, fibromyalgia, sexual dysfunction, and stroke may occur.
- Eating Disorders: The National Eating Disorder Association reports thatan estimated 30 to 50 percent of individuals with bulimia or anorexia have a history of sexual abuse. Under or overeating is used as a coping mechanism for feelings of guilt, anger, and body shame. Sexual abuse survivors may feel detached from the vessel that is consuming the food or may need to purge themselves to seek control. Healing requires compassion for the injured child, who believes controlling their body would make a safer world.
- Sleeping Disorders: Sleep disorders include insomnia, hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness), and parasomnia (sleepwalking, talking, or teeth grinding). Sexual abuse victims often suffer from intense nightmares during REM or sleep terrors, where they do not dream anything specific but wake up sweating and disoriented. Poor sleep quality can compromise metabolic, neuroendocrine, and immunological functioning to prompt everything from inflammatory disorders and heart disease to diabetes and cancer.
- Substance Abuse: Sexual abuse victims are 13x more likely to abuse alcohol and 26x more likely to abuse drugs than their peers. About half of men and women in substance abuse treatment centers cite past abuse as a contributing factor to their addictions. Substances are often used as a way of self-medicating for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and dissociation. It can take decades to overcome the denial that there is a problem with this method of coping– to confront the reality of having survived intense sexual childhood trauma and to see a path forward through sobriety.
What determines the extent of mental health problems for sexual abuse survivors?
Individuals respond to past sexual abuse in vastly different ways. For some, the effects can be persistent, acute, and debilitating– interfering with daily functions like eating or sleeping. Some survivors hold onto the pain silently for years but may suffer a flood of emotions when triggered. Still others end up with chronic illness, have difficulty keeping a job, or suffer a lifetime of relationship issues traced back to their trauma.
The differing effects of abuse depend upon the severity and duration of the trauma; the victim’s age, the nature of the relationship, and how close the victim was to the abuser; the individual’s genetic vulnerabilities, as well as the level of disclosure and familial support afterward. At the right time, opening up about what happened and seeking acceptance can be a powerful avenue for healing in some survivors.
Seeking healing using the path to legal justice
The goal of civil litigation is to make abuse victims “whole” again through financial compensation. The court considers “losses” such as the cost of medication, mental health counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, expenses related to STD treatment or pregnancy, diminished productivity or loss of wages, and an estimated amount of pain and suffering.
While no amount of money can erase what has happened, it can be empowering to force the abuser to acknowledge the damage they caused and hold institutions accountable for turning a blind eye and allowing the assault to occur on their watch.
Further, it is important to note that deadlines for pursuing justice in civil court apply. If you are suing a state-funded school or other government institution, you could have as little as 90 days to start a claim. Most cases allow individuals up to age 33 to pursue a claim, though a new law enacted on September 1, 2019, extends that to the age of 48.
Contact our team of Dallas sexual assault victim lawyers for a free consultation
Since the laws are always changing, it is best to consult with a Dallas personal injury attorney who specializes in childhood sexual abuse claims to see if you can bring a lawsuit in civil court. At Crowe Arnold & Majors, LLP, we approach each case with compassion and a caring approach to help you through this difficult time. We can help you find the right mental health care providers while we work on the legal aspects. Our clients pay nothing for our legal support until we successfully recover compensation on their behalf.