There is a sense of national outrage at the seemingly endless stream of revelations concerning the sexual abuse of children by people in the public eye. While such outrage is understandable, I can’t help being struck by the simultaneous lack of concern about the cuts to the services and support many survivors of sexual abuse depend on.
Around half of people using mental health services report histories of sexual and/or physical abuse and there is masses of research demonstrating the fact that those who have experienced childhood abuse show a greatly increased risk of developing depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders, various personality disorders and problems with self-harm. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse very often suffer from feelings of guilt, responsibility and powerlessness and may struggle with interpersonal relationships.
None of which is surprising. But neither does it have to be an inevitable life sentence. With the media focus firmly on celebrity perpetrators, we hear very little of survivors of abuse, other than that their lives have been “ruined” as a consequence of what happened. An expression I loathe precisely because it suggests that there’s nothing to be done for them. It seems almost to justify our turning away. Their lives are ruined. End of.
But we know that with appropriate and timely intervention, people can be helped enormously to overcome the legacy of childhood abuse. So it seems deeply ironic, to say the least, that this moment of national outrage at the damage done to our children should coincide with the decimation of the mental health services they need to recover.
There is nothing wrong with being outraged at the sexual abuse of children, or at the way those meant to protect them, children’s homes, hospitals, schools, and so on, failed them and let them down. A public inquiry is important and welcome. But in confining our outrage to the past and ignoring the needs of the present, we are letting survivors down all over again.
We also know that with proper intervention and treatment, these consequences can be avoided. Many survivors are able to find healing with the support of child advocacy centers, families, and mental health professionals. Intervention and treatment are both part of reacting responsibly to child sexual abuse. To successfully use all we’ve learned to create healthy societies that protect children, we need to realize that topics such as mental health are not separate discussions, but part of the same conversation.