Women who face sexual assault, harassment may face long-term health risks

A study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine finds that sexual assault and harassment are associated with long-term effects on women's physical and mental health. 

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Study finds sexual assault, harassment can have long-term health effects

Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, little research has been conducted into the associated long-term physical and psychological effects for women. Therefore, researchers in the recent study sought to determine associations between women's experiences with sexual harassment and assault and their blood pressure, mood, anxiety, and sleep.

For the study, the researchers recruited 304 nonsmoking women ages 40 to 60 in the Pittsburgh area to undergo a health assessment. The assessment included a review of their medical histories, physical measurements—such as blood pressure, height, and weight—and psychosocial evaluations, which examine anxiety, depression, sexual assault, sleep, and workplace sexual harassment. The researchers compared the health outcomes of women who had experienced sexual assault and harassment with those who had not.

According to the researchers, 22% of participants reported experiencing sexual assault, 19% reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment, and 10% reporting experiencing both sexual harassment and assault.

The researchers found an association between women's experiences of workplace sexual harassment and an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and poor sleep. Specifically, the researchers found women who experienced sexual harassment at work were 2.36 times more likely to have high blood pressure when compared with women who had not experienced sexual harassment, and 89% more likely to have poor sleep.

The researchers also found an association between women's experiences of sexual assault and anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. In particular, the researchers found women who had experienced sexual assault were 2.86 times more likely to have clinical depression, 2.26 times more likely to have clinical anxiety, and 2.15 times more likely to have poor sleep than women who had not experienced sexual assault.

The researchers concluded, "Given the high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, addressing these prevalent and potent social exposures may be critical to promoting health and preventing disease in women."

Rebecca Thurston, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who worked on the study, said, "This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention."

Reaction

Susan Mason—an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota who researches the effects of trauma, but who was not involved in the study— praised the researchers for including clinical data instead of self-reported diagnoses. She added, "These [traumatic experiences] are clearly critical things that happen to people early on, that have these really long-lasting effects. These really shape people's life trajectories."

Mayumi Okuda, a psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, said, "There has to be a cultural shift away from condoning this kind of behavior" (Carroll, Reuters, 10/3; Gordon, "Shots," NPR, 10/3; Ojong, ABC News, 10/3; Ross Johnson, Modern Healthcare, 10/3).

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