Four out of five teenage girls who have been sexually assaulted are suffering from crippling mental health problems months after their attack, new research has found.
Victims were found to have anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious conditions four to five months after being assaulted.
Experts said the findings confirmed that becoming a victim of abuse in childhood can lead to mental health issues that can persist into adulthood and last a lifetime.
The study involved 137 girls aged between 13 and 17 – average age 15.6 years – who were assaulted between April 2013 and April 2015. It was undertaken by academics from University College London (UCL) and specialist staff from King’s College hospital NHS trust who work in three sexual assault referral centres around the capital, where the victims were treated.
When the girls were examined four to five months after being attacked, 80% of them had at least one mental health disorder. More than half (55%) had at least two disorders.
The findings, published in a study called mental and sexual health outcomes following adolescent sexual assault, are in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health medical journal.
Researchers found that girls who had been assaulted were disproportionately likely to be from deprived or troubled backgrounds. Three-quarters were from a poor family, one in five had had a statement of special educational needs and more than half had previously been involved with social services.
In addition, half had sought help from NHS mental health services in the 12 months before being attacked.
A number of the girls (4%) had become pregnant after being assaulted, 12% had had a sexually transmitted infection and 8% – one in 12 – had been the subject of another sexual assault.
“Although poverty and social vulnerability are well-recognised risk factors for sexual assault, few studies have examined this among adolescents, or looked at the impact of vulnerability on mental health outcomes following sexual assault,” said the lead author, Dr Sophie Khadr, from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and the Haven centre based at King’s College hospital.
“The study findings emphasise the double disadvantage of young women who experience sexual assault,” Khadr said. “Their social vulnerability places them at higher risk of assault, with one in 12 reporting a further assault within four to five months.
“Our study found that many of these vulnerability factors are also risk factors for mental health disorders following assault. Personal characteristics such as a history of self-harm, mental health help or social services involvement were more important than the type of assault as predictors of a later mental health diagnosis.”
Tom Madders, campaigns director at the charity YoungMinds, said: “This worrying research clearly shows the devastating impact that sexual assault can have on mental health and demonstrates the importance of long-term mental health support for survivors.
“The study also suggests that many of the factors that can increase the risk of sexual assault are also factors that can contribute towards poor mental health. Unfortunately, young people who have had difficult or complex upbringings too often do not get the help they need.”
Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of Agenda and co-chair of the government’s women’s mental health taskforce, said: “[This] new research is more evidence of a concerning link between women and girls’ mental health, and their experiences of violence and abuse. We ignore this at our peril.”
Previous research by Agenda, which campaigns on risks faced by girls and women, has found that more than half of women struggling with a mental health problem had experienced some form of abuse, and that experiencing both abuse and poverty was associated with the poorest outcomes, including poor mental health and use drugs and alcohol to cope.