For sexual abuse survivors, healing may depend on one crucial factor

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The effects of childhood sexual trauma are daunting. They range from anxiety and depression to a plethora of physical health problems. Because this type of trauma affects the most vulnerable of us, children, and the stigma is so great, it can be hard for survivors to feel hopeful. But new research suggests that sexual abuse survivors are not necessarily tied to a future of mental health issues.

A recently released study suggests that the majority of survivors of childhood sexual abuse are able to achieve what the study calls “complete mental health.” Complete mental Health (CMH) is defined, in the study, as, “the absence of mental illness in combination with almost daily happiness.” In the findings, 65% of childhood sexual abuse survivors who participated were reported to have CMH, compared to 77% of the general population.

What helped them heal and manage their emotions successfully? Support. Having a close confidant increased a survivor’s reported CMH sevenfold.

“Support is so crucial,” says Adam Brown, clinical assistant professor in NYU Langone's department of child & adolescent psychiatry who specializes in childhood trauma and is unaffiliated with the study. “If you have the right environment, resilience can be developed,” he says.

The presence of a trusted person, presumably an adult, makes it more likely for a survivor to achieve CMH,” says Matthew Mutchler, psychotherapist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University, who is also unaffiliated with the research. “We need to believe and support people when they tell us of their experiences.” In other words, in order for children who have experienced abuse to heal and go on to navigate social interactions functionally, they need an adult in their lives who will listen to them and believe them.

On the surface, the findings of this research seem great, and Brown says the study confirms a lot of what we already know — that people have natural resilience. That confirmation is important, though. The more research we have that proves it, the more likely we are to develop intervention protocols when it comes to processing sexual abuse.

Brown points out that the study controlled for a lot of common factors related to childhood sexual abuse, which dims the optimism of the data a bit. The odds of a survivor achieving CMH decreased for folks with a history of substance abuse and people with anxiety or chronic pain.

Also, the study controlled for people with a history of depression and for people who had multiple traumas. “It’s very common for people who had sex abuse to have multiple kinds of abuse,” says Brown. "We know that children with multiple abuse have more negative outcomes.” In other words, the study factored out a lot of people who would likely have less positive outcomes, so the findings appear a little unrealistically bright.

The psychologists I spoke with were also concerned about how many ways the phrase “complete mental health” could be interpreted by laypeople. “That kind of terminology portrays a sense of finality. ‘I’ve achieved complete mental health – I’m all good now and forever!’ It’s just not realistic,” says Mutchler.

There was also concern that the publicity of this sort of hopeful, but potentially misleading, research might take our focus away from dealing with the real problems of childhood sexual abuse. “Childhood trauma is such a concern,” Brown says. “We need to understand how common and devastating it is.” He stresses that we can’t deviate from research being done by organizations like the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, who are working to develop assessments and treatments for the impact of child trauma.

It’s important for us to foster evidence-based hope — and to recognize that abuse survivors do not need to be slaves to their past — but we also need to remember what it takes to achieve positive outcomes. All my experts agree that early intervention is critical to healing. “The earlier one intervenes the more hopeful we can be,” Brown says “Research on resilience shows that it’s not something you have or don’t have. It can be developed.”