Mental Health and Childhood Sexual Abuse – Don’t Carry the Secret
Recently I saw something on Facebook that was very sad. It was a video of a 50 plus year old man named Scott – also called “Spider,” who told the story of his life through written cards, in a fashion similar to Ben Breedlove’s “This is my story” about his heart condition. In the video, this tough looking man, confessed the trauma of his own sexual abuse and the damage it had done to him over the years – drug abuse, divorce, culminating in an arrest for beating his child’s sexual predator with a bat.
The story was naturally sad but is all too common. In fact, statistics shows that 1 in 6 boys will be sexually molested by the age of 18 and worse for girls with 1 in 3. The other sad fact is that many, many children who are sexually abused don’t tell anyone. Either they are threatened or ashamed – or both. They carry the secret for much of their lives.
Trauma, abuse, neglect – biology didn’t account for its infliction on children. As children, our brains develop best in a loving,
supportive environment with plenty of nutritional food and quality exercise so that our bodies become the best they can be. Around the world we see the damage that poor nutrition, neglect and physical abuse can do to children. What is not so obvious is the damage wreaked by sexual abuse – it is a hidden trauma. Sexual abuse is hidden by the child, hidden from the adults, hidden from other children, and sometimes even hidden by the child’s memory.
Secrets are always dark. Carrying secrets can ruin a relationship or ruin a career. Carrying secrets imposes a burden of stress on your body – your heart doesn’t work as well, your adrenal system gets burned out, your sleep is affected. Carrying a secret like that can change a child’s brain.
Studies have shown that abuse or childhood trauma actually causes physical changes to the developing brain. It can make the child unable to grow to what they would have been.
So what does this have to do with mental health?
The effects of childhood trauma are hard to predict. Mental health is hard to identify – particularly the cause. In some cases, we can easily point to the parents and say “Mom and Grandma have clinical depression; it is no surprise that the daughter has depression.” Schizophrenia has been shown to be driven by over 100 genes and a child with one schizophrenic person has a 13 percent chance of developing the disorder. Some people are “born” alcoholics in that they are missing an enzyme that allows them to process alcohol properly and will nearly always become addicted if they drink.
In other cases – we can’t identify the cause. You have some cases of mental disorders that develop in people with perfect childhoods. You have people with horrible experiences who are remarkably healthy – rare, but true. In many cases though, someone with a history of child abuse will develop some mental disorder – but the type is very hard to predict.
In “Spider’s” case, he became a drug addict, had an anger problem and felt that he had to prove he could “conquer” women (his own words), leading to the destruction of his family. Likely he suffered from depression, anxiety disorder, and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Telling the “secret”, not carrying the weight may, just may have kept him from his self-destructive behavior. Unfortunately, it may not have stopped his daughter from being a victim, but it might have allowed him better tools than a bat to deal with her problem.
Sexual abuse has another problem – that children are often disbelieved which worsens the trauma. Unlike physical abuse, unlike neglect, unlike starvation – there are no “obvious” signs. There are signs, but you have to know what they are. Children who have been sexually abused do exhibit signs:
• changes in behavior or personality type – a normally outgoing child becomes withdrawn, a normally gregarious child becomes angry and sullen
• bed wetting and nightmares (oddly the bed-wetting may be punished)
• refusal to go to school, church, sports or club activities or to a certain friend’s house
• sudden clinginess or a sudden desire to be left alone
Too often, adults don’t ask. Too often, children don’t tell. Sadly, sometimes adults won’t listen. If you know of a child that has
sudden behavioral changes – ask. If you are an adult, believe. If you are a victim, tell. Even at a late date, telling can change your life and resolve some of your “issues.” I think in the end, “Spider’s” main message was “tell your kids to tell.”
What does this have to do with mental health?
Sexual abuse can contribute to:
PTSD, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bulimia, Anorexia, Drug Addiction, Alcoholism, Attachment Disorder… and many more.