The Mental Health Impact of Rape
Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Medical University of South Carolina

The National Women's Study produced dramatic confirmation of the mental health impact of rape. The study determined comparative rates of several mental health problems among rape victims and non-victims. The study ascertained whether rape victims were more likely than non-victims to experience these devastating mental health problems. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

The first mental health problem examined was posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an extremely debilitating disorder occurring after a highly disturbing traumatic event, such as military combat or violent crime.  
Almost one-third (31%) of all rape victims developed PTSD sometime during their lifetime; and more than one in ten rape victims (11%) still has PTSD today.
Rape victims were 6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD than women who had never been victims of crime (31% vs 5%).
Rape victims were 5.5 times more likely to have current PTSD than those who had never been victims of crime (11% Vs 2%).

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are approximately 96.3 million adult women in the  United States age 18 or older. If 13% of American women have been raped and 31% of rape victims have developed PTSD, then 3.8 million adult American women have had rape-related PTSD (RR-PTSD):
    If 11% of all rape victims have PTSD, then an estimated 1.3 million American women have RR-PTSD.
    I f 683,000 women are raped each year, approximately 211,000 will develop RR-PTSD annually
Other Mental Health Problems
Major depression is a problem affecting many women, not just rape victims. However, 30% of rape victims had experienced at least one major depressive episode in their lifetimes, and 21% of all rape victims were experiencing a major depressive episode at the time of assessment:
    By contrast, only 10% of women never victimized by violent crime had ever had a major depressive episode; and only 6% had a major depressive episode when assessed.
    Rape victims were three times more likely than non-victims of crime to have ever had a major depressive episode (30% Vs 10%). Also, they were 3.5 times more likely to be currently experiencing a major depressive episode (21% Vs 6%).
Some mental heath problems are life threatening. When asked if they ever thought seriously about committing suicide:
    One-third (33%) of the rape victims and 8% of the non-victims of crime said yes.
    Rape victims were 4.1 times more likely than non-crime victims to have contemplated suicide.
    Rape victims were 13 times more likely than non-crime victims to have attempted suicide (13% Vs 1%).
Substance Abuse
There was substantial evidence that rape victims had higher rates than non-victims of drug and alcohol consumption and a greater likelihood of having drug and alcohol-related problems. Compared to women who had never been crime victims, rape victims with RR-PTSD were:
    13.4 times more likely to have two or more major alcohol problems (20.1% Vs 1.5%).
    26 times more likely to have two or more major serious drug abuse problems (7.8% Vs 0.3%).
The National Women's Study findings provide compelling evidence about the extent to which rape poses a danger to American women's mental health -- and even their continued survival -- because of increased suicide risk. Thus, rape is a problem for America's mental and public health systems as well as the criminal justice system.

 Key Concerns of Rape Victims
 To effectively respond to rape victims, service providers and criminal justice officials need to understand the major concerns of rape victims. Without accurate information, it is difficult to develop policies and programs to meet victims’ needs.

The National Women’s Study identified several critical concerns. To determine whether victims’ concerns have changed over time, the study divided these concerns into two categories: all rape victims vs. victims that had been raped within the previous five years (1987-91). The changes in concerns included:
  • The victim’s relatives knowing about the assault: Relatively little change over time. Seventy-one percent of all victims and 66% of victims within past five years are concerned about relatives finding out about the rape.

  • People blaming the victim:Rape victims are concerned about being blamed for the rape, and this has not changed over time. In fact, 69% of all victims and 66% of recent rape victims say they worry about being blamed.

  • People outside her family knowing she had been sexually assaulted:No significant difference. Sixty-eight percent of all victims and 61% of rape victims within the past five years are concerned about this.
  • The victim’s identity being revealed in the news media: Women raped within the last five years are more likely to be concerned about the possibility of their names being published than all rape victims (60% vs. 50%).

  •  Becoming pregnant: Sixty-one percent of recent rape victims, as opposed to 34% of all rape victims, are concerned about getting pregnant.

  •  Contracting a sexually transmitted disease (not including HIV/AIDS): Recent rape victims were more than twice as concerned as all rape victims about contracting sexually transmitted diseases. (43% Vs 19%).

  • Contracting HIV/AIDS: Recent rape victims were four times more likely than all victims to be concerned about getting HIV/AIDS as a result of the rape - regardless of the recency of the rape (40% Vs 10%).

    The stigma of rape persists. Victims are greatly concerned about others discovering they were raped. Service providers and criminal justice officials should endeavor to maintain the confidentiality and respect the privacy needs of victims
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