Post Date: 31 July 2021 Category: Media

Sexual assault, stigma and suicidality

Mercury Newspaper | July 2021

Despite increased attention given to suicide prevention, we see little if no reduction in suicide statistics. Coronial inquests look at the circumstances around individual cases. The new Royal Commission into veteran suicides will look into "military life" but it is not leading with the impact of trauma as a causal factor. A common response to the high rates of suicide and suicide attempts among sexual assault survivors is to lament their 'lost battle' with stress, anxiety and depression.

With an increase in disclosures of sexual assaults in Australia, comes a growing awareness of the length of time it takes for a person to disclose and the correlations between the experience of sexual assault and suicide.

If we unpack this response for a moment, the idea that sexual assault flicks a mental health switch that results in a suicide, we see that we risk reducing the context of a person's death to a poorly managed individual response to a triggering event. From the perspective of specialist support services, there is undoubtedly much more to the story of sexual assault and suicidality than poorly managed mental health.

While mental wellbeing is acutely relevant to suicidality, social conditions (therefore conditions that can be changed) are also inevitably present within the experience of suicide. In particular, the experience of stigma is recognised as being significant for people experiencing suicidal ideation.

The high rates of suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and for LGBTI+ community members tell us that there are shared experiences of stigma, mixed with social

exclusion and discrimination that increase the risk of suicide. When these elements overlap with normal human experiences of anxiety and stress, the conditions are in place for increased suicide attempts and higher fatal suicide statistics.

Childhood sexual assault is one of the most stigmatising experiences a person can endure. And while fear of social stigmatisation prevents many sexual assault survivors from accessing support or reporting their experience, the coinciding internalised stigma is a burden that results in childhood sexual assault survivors taking on average 24 years to disclose the crime, if they disclose at all.

The pervasive burden of stigma is described well by a survivor who declared, "even my cat stigmatises me."

Even without disclosing the experience of abuse, survivors often feel deeply humiliated, disgraced and ashamed. They rightly fear being blamed by others and most will blame themselves. They can be left bearing such responsibility for what they have endured that a disclosure feels almost like an admission. As one survivor shared, "Internalised stigma feels like wearing a neon sign that loudly declares your experience even when you've never told another person."

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in normal childhood development children blame themselves for traumatic things that happen. Further, the assault itself may have been delivered as an act of punishment: "if you weren't naughty I wouldn't have to do this." These conditions are compounded by Draconian ideas about sex that suggest many sexual acts are sinful and the result of a personal failing.

Research shows survivors from already marginalised populations are more likely to be disbelieved and receive a negative response when they seek help compared with the general population. For marginalised people, the stigma intensifies.

When we think about the high rates of suicidality amongst people who have experienced sexual assault, we must think about the social context of accountability, responsibility and justice in which they lived. If the assault is constructed as being the fault of the victim, this becomes the experience that they have to live with.

When we think about the suicide of sexual assault victims, we need to acknowledge the conditions in which they lived. People who have experienced sexual assault don't end their life because of a failed attempt to manage their mental health, but because the conditions of their existence held them responsible for the trauma and very likely afforded a level of protection to the perpetrator.

The antidote to this situation is to believe survivors, regardless of their social circumstances. We need to elevate survivors to the position of expert, regarding both their lived experience and the response they need to survive it. Our service and justice responses must be designed to provide comfort and restore dignity in every way. For as long as this is not occurring, we will be limiting the opportunities for accountability in the perpetration of child sexual assault.

Another necessary correction is to expect and model transparency at all times. Understanding that sexual assault always occurs when there is an imbalance of power means calls for the experience of power to be scrutinised with no exceptions – at home, in the workplace, in schools and elsewhere. For those with power over others and in positions of power, the need to understand the responsible use of power is essential. Values, language and behaviours that blame, minimise, or disregard sexual assault need to be exposed, challenged and eradicated.

When people who have experienced sexual assault end their lives, we must acknowledge that the cause of their death lies in the trauma they have been subjected to in a society that has not only failed to protect, but also failed to respond with due compassion and accountability.

Alina Thomas is the CEO of Tasmania family violence service, Engender Equality. In her work, she calls for a social examination of gendered issues. Alina is a white woman, living on the stolen lands of the palawa people.

If you would like to talk to someone about your experience please call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732