News: Sexual Harassment and Assault Linked to Long-Term Mental, Physical Health Issues

News: Sexual Harassment and Assault Linked to Long-Term Mental, Physical Health Issues

A new study shows that women who have experienced forms of sexual violence have increased risks for high blood pressure, poor sleep and depression.

When a woman is sexually harassed in the workplace or is sexually assaulted, she can experience negative effects on both her mental and physical health. A new study shows that women who have been sexually harassed at work have increased odds for high blood pressure and poor sleep compared to women without such a history. Women who have been sexually assaulted are also at greater risk for poor sleep and have increased risk for depression and anxiety symptoms, as well.

The findings, published in October 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine, come at a time when sexual harassment and assault are an ongoing cultural focus, with the #MeToo movement and a series of high-profile cases making the news. Depending on how they’re asked the question, 25 to 85 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment at work. And statistics indicate that in the United States, a person is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.

The report is “exceptionally timely,” says Danielle Beatty Moody, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, because it offers evidence of links between these experiences and effects on women’s health. The negative outcomes for sleep, depression, and blood pressure are important, she says, because they are known heart disease risk factors.

The research team asked the 304 women in the study two yes-or-no questions:

  • “Have you ever experienced sexual harassment at work that was either physical or verbal?”
  • “Have you ever been made or pressured into having some type of unwanted sexual contact?”

The women, who ranged in age from 40 to 60 years, also had their blood pressure and other physical measurements taken and they completed questionnaires about depression symptoms, sleep quality and anxiety.

Of the group, 19 percent reported that they’d been sexually harassed at work, and 22 percent reported having been sexually assaulted. One in ten women reported a history of both.

The results were striking: Compared to women with no reported workplace sexual harassment, those who reported such a history had more than double the odds of having high blood pressure and almost double the odds of poor sleep. Women who had a history of sexual assault had almost three-fold increased odds of heightened symptoms of depression compared with women who reported no such history. They also had more than twice the odds of anxiety and poor sleep.

The authors say that one limitation of their study is the use of only two questions, each with a “yes” or “no” answer.

“I would like to expand the questions to ask about specific instances of assault [and] harassment, when they occurred and how many experiences women had over their lives,” says study first author Rebecca Thurston, PhD, professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Another step Thurston would like to take is including a “wider array of racial-ethnic groups,” because their study mostly involved white and African-American women. “I don’t, however, expect a dramatic difference, as we did not see much variation by race-ethnicity,” she says.

Beatty Moody sees the interaction of other factors such as gender, race and class as something to pursue in future research. These links need a closer look, she says: “The opportunity to explore these steps in a diverse sample of women across the United States—especially as this relates to race and ethnicity—would also be a critical next step.”

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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