The following is excerpted from an online article posted by MedicalXpress.
The prevalence of serious mental health problems among 17-year-olds could drop by as much as 16.8% for girls and 8.4% for boys if they were not subjected to sexual violence, such as sexual assault and harassment, according to estimates from UCL researchers.
The new research, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, uses information from 9,971 young people born across the UK in 2000-02, who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study. At the age of 17, just over 1,000 girls and 260 boys reported they had experienced sexual assault or an unwelcome sexual approach in the previous 12 months.
The researchers found that rates of two serious mental health problems—severe psychological distress and self-harm—were higher, on average, among victims than among those who did not report experiencing sexual assault or harassment by at this age. This was true even when taking into account a wide range of other factors known to affect teenagers’ risk of experiencing sexual violence and mental ill health.
The authors calculated that in a hypothetical scenario where sexual assault and harassment were eliminated, rates of self-harm among teenage girls might drop by 16.8%—from the current level of 28.9% in a world with these forms of sexual violence to 24% (a five-percentage point reduction) in a world without. Additionally, high levels of psychological distress might drop by 14% (22.6% vs. 19.5%).
Among boys, the researchers anticipated rates of self-harm could drop by 8.4% (20.3% vs. 18.6%) and severe psychological distress by 3.7% (10.2% vs. 9.8%) if sexual assault and harassment were eradicated.
The authors noted several limitations of their study. Sexual violence is known to be underreported, and the authors recognize that teenagers with and without serious mental health problems may differ in their likelihood of reporting such experiences.
Finally, as this is an observational study, the authors noted the challenges in establishing cause and effect. The study makes use of very detailed data to account for a wide range of factors that may have influenced the link between experiences of sexual assault and harassment and serious mental health problems. However, it would be impossible to rule out with certainty the influence of every possible factor.