The Mental Health Risks That Face Sexual Assault Victims
A review of the documentary “Victim/Suspect.”
Source: Engin Akyurt/Pexels
I recently came across the documentary Victim/Suspect, about sexual assault victims who were turned into suspects and charged with false reporting without proper investigations. Rachel de Leon is a reporter who became interested in the subject when she came across an article about a woman who reported sexual assault and was later charged with false reporting. De Leon begins an investigation into several cases and finds that police often improperly handled reports and manipulated victims into admitting they created false reports.
Powerful themes of the mental health struggles that victims of sexual assault go through, how police respond to their reports, and how these cases could be handled differently are addressed in the film. The cases de Leon comes across affect her powerfully; in one scene she breaks down when sharing that an alleged victim chose to end her life. The research she studied from the Department of Justice states that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lifetime. There will be more than 460,000 sexual assaults per year in the United States with only 30% of those reported to the police and only 1% of perpetrators ever prosecuted. De Leon ends the film by focusing on the struggle many survivors face when deciding if reporting is worth the risk.
I was particularly interested in the mental-health struggles the women in the movie were going through although not much was mentioned about counseling and treatment those survivors may have benefited from. The woman who took her own life did have intake paperwork filled out for an upcoming appointment with a therapist found next to her when her body was discovered, which is what made the scene so difficult to watch. One can’t help but wonder what may have changed for the young woman had she been able to get mental health treatment.
How can someone who was assaulted be accused of false reporting?
- Memory problems. Many victims report the crimes within hours of the assault occurring and have not had time to process the events. They also may have disassociated during the assault due to fear, panic, or pain. When under stress, people commonly have trouble remembering details and timelines.
- Bias from investigators. Law-enforcement officers can be biased from past experiences or the inconsistencies they hear in the victim’s stories.
- Power dynamics. Related to investigator bias, victims may feel inclined to agree with the things law enforcement suggests because they feel powerless and that officers do not believe them.
- Fear and anxiety. Often a victim may be so overwhelmed that they may want things to just disappear after making the report. The fear of a lengthy court process and the risk of having their assault publicized can cause them to try to recant their stories.
Mental Health Effects
In a study from 2009 (Campbell) impacts on mental health after a sexual assault were found to include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Many victims struggle with self-blame immediately following an assault until working through mental health treatment. A study from 2018 (Carey) looked at first-year college females who experienced sexual assault and found similar outcomes, noting that 1 in 5 women may experience sexual assault during their first year of college. In a 2020 (Dworkin) study, researchers looking at risks for developing a mental disorder after a sexual assault found a high risk of developing depression and PTSD for participants, as compared to the general population.
We can conclude from these studies that many victims will experience mental-health disorders following their assault. I can imagine this would only become more complicated if law enforcement chose to charge a victim with filing a false report due to an improper investigation. It can be a hard decision in itself to report a sexual crime as many victims fear they won’t be believed or nothing will happen to their perpetrators.
In the research I gathered it was concluded that treatment can help victims overcome the mental-health struggles they developed. Counseling can be effective at reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. If needed, a residential or inpatient treatment program specifically for sexual assault victims can also be helpful in treating PTSD and more severe cases. Many college campuses have sexual assault centers to help with prevention as well as legal help and support for victims. I was hopeful the film would have spent a little time addressing this, but was impressed in general by the reporting on the subject and by the women in the movie who shared their stories.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat here.
Department of Justice
Campbell, R., Dworkin, E., & Cabral, G. (2009). An Ecological Model of the Impact of Sexual Assault On Women’s Mental Health. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
Carey KB, Norris AL, Durney SE, Shepardson RL, Carey MP. Mental health consequences of sexual assault among first-year college women. J Am Coll Health.
Dworkin, E. R. (2020). Risk for Mental Disorders Associated With Sexual Assault: A Meta-Analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.