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Sexual Harassment, Assault Increases Risk of Health Problems, New Study Finds

Just a week after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school, and spoke in detail about the lasting impact that event has had on her life, a new study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, detailing the lasting effects of sexual assault and harassment on mental and physical health.

“We did not have control over the timing of this paper,” says Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the lead researcher on the study, which was designed more than seven years ago. “The timing was serendipitous. I feel privileged to be able to contribute to the national conversation on this topic.”

For the study, researchers surveyed 304 nonsmoking women between the ages of 40 and 60 about their past experiences with sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment, and tested various indicators of mental and physical health. Past studies have looked at correlations between health problems and sexual trauma, but they relied on self-reported symptoms, whereas this study included measurable metrics like blood pressure, medical histories and psychological evaluations conducted as part of the study, providing the most concrete evidence so far that sexual harassment and assault have serious, long-lasting negative effects on health.

The study found that women with a history of workplace sexual harassment had significantly higher rates of sleep problems and high blood pressure than those without, and women with a history of sexual assault had a significantly higher rate of clinical depression, anxiety, and sleep problems than those without. Sleep deprivation, which women in both categories experienced, can also lead to a weakened immune system, mood changes, memory problems, a higher risk of diabetes, and a host of other secondary symptoms.

These results will come as no surprise to survivors of sexual assault or harassment who have seen their health (and often their careers) suffer. The lasting effects of these experiences are something survivors have been trying to get society at large to understand for ages, and with renewed fervor in the current political climate where the alleged attack by Judge Kavanaugh on Dr. Blasey is brushed off as not a big deal because it happened so long ago.

Twenty-five percent of the women in the study reported being sexually assaulted or harassed, which researchers note is lower than the national averages of 36 percent and 40-75 percent, respectively. That means that if the results of this study hold true in the general population, it follows that 36 percent of women in this country are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and sleep problems, and 40-75 percent are at a higher risk for high blood pressure and sleep problems. The study did not include male or nonbinary survivors.

“Efforts to improve women’s health should target sexual harassment and assault prevention,” researchers conclude in the study. In other words, the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault that’s finally coming to light in the #MeToo era and in response to Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination is not just a social, criminal issue, it’s also a health crisis.

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