Sexual Violence and Mental Health

Why It’s Important to Respect Survivors with PTSD

The impact of sexual violence on a person can be devastating on their mental health. For me, the emotional trauma of having someone I had only known for a month invade my body led to developing a mental illness that affects me to this day.

Ever since being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I’ve become all too aware of the stigma around it. In a sociopolitical climate defined by the “alt-right”, Pepe the frog, and Donald Trump, I’ve learned that people are proud to show and revel in their blatant malice and ignorance of survivors living with PTSD.

We have people casually making rape jokes/metaphors, or using “triggered” ironically, and people intentionally doing either with the purpose of hurting someone who identifies as having PTSD. Coupled with the stigma around anything related to sex, there are so many obstacles that survivors face in getting the help that they need to heal from their trauma.

To be clear, neither people who treat PTSD casually nor those who treat it mockingly are people I would want to be around. PTSD is no joke, and we need to stop treating it like one. It’s a serious and valid illness that is unpredictable in nature and often debilitating.

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Most recently, the anxiety aspect of my PTSD was triggered because I was exposed to an overly aggressive conversation around Trump’s status as a sexual predator and abuser. In the immediate moments after I left the room, I began to hyperventilate. I cried for about half an hour, and couldn’t get to sleep that night.

The morning after, my menstrual cycle had been thrown 2 weeks off schedule. I was bleeding, and had such bad menstrual cramps that I missed work because I couldn’t get out of bed. I spent the day in bed, watching Netflix or sleeping. Compared to shoving burritos down my throat and still needing more food in top health, that day, I could barely eat a handful of potato chips without wanting to throw up.

For the rest of week, I was tense to the point of having migraines, had little to no motivation to do anything productive, and was extremely irritable, introverted, and in general, depressed. Yoga helped me release that negative energy, but it manifested into an uncontrollable emotional spell, where at my lowest point, I weighed the benefits of taking my entire bottle of escitalopram.

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33% of all survivors of sexual assault report experiencing PTSD in their lifetimes. It encompasses a wide range of symptoms directly related to the trauma of sexual assault, and manifests in different ways. Those symptoms include flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, depression, guilt, and numbness, and can last anywhere from two weeks to several years after the initial event. Physical symptoms can manifest as a result of poor mental health too – I’ve suffered from poor sleep, a lack of appetite, headaches from muscle tension, breathing problems, etc. due to PTSD.

Given the high number of sexual assaults in Canada (~460,000 reported cases to the police per year), we have a lot of people in this country who suffer from PTSD. It’s a gross misstep for anyone to make light of it, or to use it maliciously against someone struggling with it. People who mock safe spaces, content warnings, and sexual violence are causing harm to survivors who are trying to manage their mental health, making their struggle that much harder. Content warnings and safe spaces are just some of the tools that survivors can use to reassert our autonomy over our minds and bodies.

Allowing us to choose when to engage with difficult topics, or at least giving us space to mentally prepare for it shows that you respect and acknowledge our pain, and it shows that we can trust you to not cause us further harm. Being able to maintain our boundaries helps us recover and heal at our own pace. It’s important to understand that some survivors need these things not because we’re babies, but because we’ve been victimized, and are trying to rebuild our sense of safety in our environments.

Mocking these tools demonstrates a lack of empathy for survivors, and an ignorance of the very real trauma that we are forced to endure. Remember that we literally did not ask for this. When you mock our need for space spaces, or trigger warnings, you are mocking us for the violence that was perpetrated against us. You are punching down towards a victim, instead of helping us fight against our abusers and a society that still deeply misunderstands and stigmatizes sexual violence and mental health.

Survivors deserve our respect and empathy, and we need to make sure we are supporting them as best as we can. We, as a society, need to understand how far-reaching symptoms of PTSD are, and we need to help survivors make it through, instead of shaming them for pain they didn’t ask for. PTSD isn’t a punchline. It’s painful, and it’s a struggle.

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