Research 4 TEARS: Telling Everyone About Rape & Suicide

What is the relationship between rape and suicide?

Missouri Chapter Newsletter)

Sexual Assault as an Antecedent to Suicide Attempts: A Synopsis From Academic Research
Lynn C. Tolson, BSW
This article is adapted from research and a presentation conducted by the author @lynntolson at the annual Social Work Institute at Missouri Western State University, Saint Joseph, MO. The purpose of this article is to discuss the relationship between sexual assault and suicide attempts. Research has focused on sexual assault or suicide attempts but few study sexual assault as a precursor to suicide attempts. Although sexual assault occurs across all classes, races, and ethnic groups, rape is the only crime where women are the majority victims. Furthermore, statistics show that females attempt suicide more often than males. Thus, the trauma of a sexual assault may be a precursor to a suicide attempt.

The confluence of factors leading to suicide obscures a path that may possibly point to an attempter’s history as a victim of sexual assault. Since suicide attempts are not crimes and drug overdoses may or may not be intentional, it makes it even more difficult to determine which, if any, suicide attempts are related to sexual assault.

Counselors screen for suicide risk by determining previous attempts, which is a primary indicator of future attempts. In suicide, the closest diagnosis is depression. Clinicians recognize that a suicidal client may present with symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, over-or under-eating, inability to focus, and/or sleeping too little or too much. However, the underlying cause of a victim’s distress must be considered, instead of merely treating a symptom, such as depression. Counselors may consider that a sexual assault history be included when screening for suicide by asking, “Has anyone touched you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable?” This questioning occurs only after the counselors have determined that the client has adequate coping skills and support systems. Follow-up services on the sexually assaulted and/or the suicidal are necessary to prevent an ultimate suicide.

Difficulties arise when victims do not report rapes even in the privacy of a counseling session. In some cases, the victim may not remember the assault, if, perhaps, she had been drugged and passed out. The victim may not reveal for other reasons, such as being blamed for the assault, fearing retaliation from the attacker, or public humiliation. Many survivors of sexual assault may believe rape myths. One such myth is that the typical rapist is a stranger to the victim. In fact, studies revealed the prevalence of date rape and/or acquaintance rape.

Counselors in the community (Saint Joseph, MO) appear to be doing all that they can given the lack of resources to meet the needs. Yet an inadequacy of services may cause individual victims of sexual assault to suffer in isolation and/or to cry out for help in the context of suicide attempts. Services intended to prevent, intervene, and treat sexual assault and/or suicide are inadequate due to lack of funding and staffing. This is unfortunate, given that the need for early rape and suicide prevention programs are necessary prior to adolescence. Agencies should start early in prevention via awareness in the community, and stay long in treating the survivor via support groups.

Churches, schools, and family/community centers may be appropriate avenues for increasing awareness. These institutions must be aware of the rape myths and facts in order to serve victims with knowledge and care. In addition, community members must be mindful of the risk factors associated with suicide to prevent completed suicides.

Society perpetuates stigmas pertaining to suicide and rape; these stigmas cast a code of silence that solves neither problem. The silence limits the study of correlations between sexual assault and suicide attempts. The limits of research diminish public awareness of social issues. However, sexual assault and/or suicide attempts are not merely private matters, but are indeed public issues. I suggest that it is necessary to increase knowledge about these issues, decrease the cost to society in human potential, and take long-term action to treat the sexually assaulted and/or suicide attempters. Adequate services and awareness opportunities for both men and women must be available to intervene, treat, and support victims.

Ample resource material is available by and for professionals (and survivors) seeking information on sexual assault. However, no matter how much literature is available on the social problems of suicide attempts and sexual assault, few true-life stories of recovery are available. Therefore, as the author of Beyond the Tears: A True Survivor’s Story, I made public my private journey of recovery. I reveal my struggle as a survivor of sexual assault, including incest (indeed, family members are not strangers.)

The reader of Beyond the Tears: A True Survivor's Story is privy to the counseling sessions I engaged in after a suicide attempt. By bringing my dark secrets to light, it is my hope that others who have had similar events will know that they are not alone. Readers may also explore their own emotions to open lines of communication, eliminate shame, and experience healing. I also hope that my book promotes understanding of the issues that cause individual suffering and plaque our society. An additional benefit of this book is that any clinician will see how another counselor made a difference in the author’s life.

So no shed tear is wasted.

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