Smash the Stigma of Sexual Violence this Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Survivors Sexual Assault

Lowering the incidence of suicide requires us as a nation to tamp down sexual violence and effectively treat the survivors of sexual assault. The trauma of sexual assault is distinct from other forms of violence in that it can lead to severe distress that exposes victims to a heightened risk of PTSD and depression, two common risk factors for suicide; in fact, one study found that women who were victims of physical and sexual assault are over five times more likely than victims of domestic violence to attempt or consider suicide. 

Nearly all rape victims grapple with PTSD in the weeks after their attack, while approximately one-third of continue to suffer from symptoms of PTSD almost a year later; PTSD, in particular, is a condition that is closely tied with suicidality, in not just victims of sexual violence but military veterans and law enforcement officers as well. Ultimately, about a third of rape victims report having contemplated suicide, while one in every seven or eight have actually attempted it. 

Showing Up for Survivors

It’s challenging enough for victims of sexual violence to come forward to report an attack, since it requires victims to overcome stigma and potentially force them to relive their trauma through the process. Undocumented and even documented members of the Latinx community have even more at stake than their peers. The Office for Victims of Color cited data that highlighted immigration status as a unique barrier to the Latinx community, something that places victims in a position where speaking up or reporting an attack can jeopardize their work and home life, potentially setting them up for deportation. Those who do report their attacks are less likely to receive proper treatment following a sexual assault or rape, as many Latinxs do not have access to the culturally informed services or the Spanish-language care that they require. 

One way that our institutions, media, and public can help to prevent suicide is straightforward: Believe victims. Well beyond the details of the attack, believe survivors’ emotions and their struggles, and believe that they are trying to get back to their normal lives as best they can. “If we speak openly and without judgment about mental health and show compassion, empathy, and understanding, together we can dismantle the environment of shame, fear, and silence that often prevents survivors from seeking support and help,” said Keeli Sorensen, the VP of victim services at RAINN, in a statement. 

Ultimately, step up and show up for survivors of sexual violence, helping them to gather resources and being with them if and when they decide to file a report. It’s not going to be easy — violence of any sort is so pernicious because of its ability to ripple out into the community, one way or another. Nothing can undo the trauma of sexual assault or rape, but having adequate support in the aftermath can help to prevent victims from ending their own lives. 

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual violence, call the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1(800) 656-4673 to connect with a trained staff member or volunteer who will help you to take the next steps in your recovery.