August 3, 2011 – 12:17AM
ONE in four women have been victims of sexual or domestic violence, or have
been stalked, according to a study into mental illness that found the median age
for being raped was 13.
It also found serious mental disorders and suicide attempts are prevalent
among women who had experienced these forms of gender-based violence.
Susan Rees, the lead researcher, from the school of psychiatry at the
University of NSW, said the impact of gender violence on women’s mental health
had been underestimated.
”This is a public health problem of some magnitude,” Dr Rees said.
The study, by a team of 14 psychiatrists, psychologists and statisticians
from the University of NSW and University of Melbourne, is published today in
the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.
It is based on a survey of 4451 women aged 16 to 85, drawn from the Bureau of
Statistics 2007 National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. The survey is
representative of eight million women.
Previously unpublished figures show 27 per cent of women have experienced at
least one form of gender-based violence: about 8 per cent have been raped, 15
per cent have experienced sexual assault that did not involve penetration, 10
per cent have been stalked, and almost 8 per cent have been badly beaten by a
spouse or partner.
However, what shocked the authors was the strong association between the
women’s experience and serious mental illness. It was especially noticeable
among women with exposure to two or more forms of gender violence.
For example, among women with no exposure to gender violence, 28 per cent had
a serious diagnosed mental illness in their lifetime. But among those exposed to
two types of gender violence, 69 per cent had a serious mental illness. Among
those with exposure to three or more types of violence, almost 90 per cent had
illnesses such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse, or post traumatic stress
disorder, and nearly 35 per cent had attempted suicide.
”The violence has a serious impact on women’s ability to function, to work,
to sustain relationships, ” she said.
Gender-based violence was more prevalent among women from poorer backgrounds,
and the first occurrence was early – a median age of 12 for sexual assault, 13
for rape, 22 for being stalked, and 22 for violence from a partner.
The executive officer of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, Karen Willis, said with
counselling soon after the event and support from family and friends, women had
every chance of quick recovery.
”If women leave it for 20 years and blame themselves, or if others tell them
to ‘get over it’, it’s more difficult,” she said. ”It’s the same with domestic
violence. If women get away, that’s important for their safety. But it takes
more than a house to recover from the impact on their mental health.”
Dr Rees said women’s services needed adequate funding to deal with serious
psychiatric problems and public education was needed to alter attitudes that
sanctioned violence against women.
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