Sexually abused being failed by services

June 15, 2001

Services for mentally distressed sexual abuse survivors are inadequate and fragmented, Edinburgh University sociologist Sarah Nelson said this week.

She unveiled the findings of a two-year research project at a conference, "Beyond Trauma". Its sponsors included Edinburgh Association for Mental Health, which managed the research in collaboration with the university.

Dr Nelson interviewed women who had been sexually abused in childhood, psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurses, and organisations working with survivors, including drugs agencies and homeless projects.

She found many survivors ended up receiving psychiatric treatment for serious depression, frightening flashbacks, eating disorders, panic attacks and even hearing the voice of their abuser. Half the mothers in the research sample had suffered postnatal depression, dramatically higher than would be expected in the general population.

But Dr Nelson found many staff were afraid to "open the can of worms" and allow survivors to talk about their trauma because they themselves found it too difficult to work with or believed it would make the women worse.

Survivors with "difficult" behaviour, such as self-mutilation or drug abuse, were shunted between one service and another. There was a general lack of specialist services to treat the underlying abuse trauma.

The report calls on the Scottish Executive to make it a requirement for strategic mental health plans and community care plans to consider the needs of sexual abuse survivors. It also urges a new training, advice and support agency for staff, a national helpline and a "crisis house" for survivors.

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