What If I Told You Most Abuse Survivors Are Not Who We Think They Are?

What if a study found that 65% of sexual abuse survivors are “mentally healthy” as adults? Would you believe that?

Granted, it might be difficult to swallow that as fact. I’m fairly skeptical of exactly how this study was conducted myself, but I also have to go back to my understanding of statistics and math to reconsider, and thus, also reconsider what we think we know about survivors.

We know there are, potentially, millions of survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the US. We know that many are struggling with addiction, or homelessness, or currently in treatment for mental health struggles, but we also know many are not. In fact, if I go back and look at my own post about ACE scores, and how a high score does not equal fate, we can actually see that there are quite a few people with higher scores for childhood trauma, which may or may not include sexual abuse, but we know that it includes survivors, who do not have those outcomes.

We’ve also overlooked the 49.3% of people with scores of 4 or more, who aren’t depressed. Or, the 81.7% who haven’t attempted suicide, the 71.6% who have not used illicit drugs, or 83.9% who don’t consider themselves alcoholic.

I think we have a tendency to overlook survivors of sexual abuse who are simply out living their lives. We have a tendency to pay attention, rightfully, to those who are still being affected and struggling because of the abuse. We know that the abuse increases the likelihood of those outcomes. They tend to talk more about it, we can see the effects in their day to day struggles, and as advocates we tend to point to those struggles as evidence of the devastating impact of sexual abuse. We want to help them, so we focus on finding ways to do that.

But, they aren’t the whole story. There are millions of survivors out there who don’t talk about their abuse, don’t have obvious, current, impacts on their daily lives, and who are relatively well-adjusted adults. We shouldn’t ignore them, because it’s those people who can tell us more about how to support survivors. What about them is different from others who are still struggling?

First, we have to understand what they mean by “mentally healthy”

“Remarkably, two-thirds [65%] of the childhood sexual-abuse survivors in our sample met the criteria for complete mental health — defined as being happy or satisfied with life most days in the past month, having high levels of social and psychological well-being in the past month, and being free of mental illness, suicidal thoughts and substance dependence in the past year,”

Obviously, no one is claiming that survivors appear to be unaffected by their abuse. That would be ridiculous. Rather, it appears that 65% are living within kind of the normal bounds of mental health, they have bad days, but not so many, they aren’t struggling with mental health issues, or addiction, and they feel like they belong socially.

The thing that interests me though, are the three areas that they point to that seem to help determine whether someone is in the 65% or not.

1. Lack of mental health issues.

2. Lack of chronic pain.

3. A confidante, or source of support.

If any of these things were missing, the likelihood of a survivor being in this 65% group starts to go way down. Regardless of how you feel about the number in the study, and whether future studies find some variance in that number, this is informative. We now have some evidence that the way we can best treat and help survivors is with proper mental health treatment, proper physical health treatment for chronic pain, and being surrounded by supportive people.

It’s when these three areas fail that we are more likely to see the survivor who struggles throughout their adult life. When they are not believed as children, or blamed for their abuse by people who would rather cling to the belief that their family is perfect and happy, when we fail to provide early and effective mental health treatment, and when we fail to treat the physical symptoms like chronic pain, we simply make it harder for them to heal.

If I look at my own story, I see the evidence of this. In my twenties, and early thirties, I don’t think I could have listed myself as part of the 65%. Now, I really can. Why?

  • I was able to get mental health treatment.
  • I have a confidante in my wife, and plenty of support from friends and family
  • I do not have any chronic pain or other physical conditions from my abuse

I’ve been privileged, and lucky. I had the resources to get treatment, for a few years. I have people in my life who support me, and I don’t have any chronic pain issues.

Not everyone has that. In fact, I’d say it is all too common that a survivor is lacking one, or all three of those things.

I see this study as a call to action. There are things we can do when we find out about sexual abuse that can help people heal. Are we willing to do what is necessary, as friends, as family, as health care practitioners, as a society?

All survivors deserve a chance to heal. As we work to identify the things that help us along that path, we should do our best to make sure they have access to that.

If not, we are failing.

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