February 21, 2020

HJ Talks About Abuse: Understanding trauma in the context of child sexual abuse

In this podcast we discuss the topic of understanding trauma in the context of child sexual abuse (CSA) with Associate Professor of Criminology at The University of New South Wales, Michael Salter.

What do we mean by trauma?

“A mental condition caused by severe shock, especially when the harmful effects last for a long time and cause post-trauma symptoms which put stress on the body”.

We need to understand what trauma means in relation to CSA and the impact it has on the victims (survivors).

Research shows that CSA impacts on a victim’s health across the life course so that harmful impacts may manifest through increased common childhood health conditions, as well as general poorer self-rated health. Such conditions are typically not life threatening (but can be life shortening for example by smoking or taking “drugs”) but their long-term impact on physical and social development can be considerable. Thus, childhood ill health as well as anti-social behaviour could impact school attendance and consequently opportunities for educational attainment and better economic prospects throughout life etc.

We also know that CSA can adversely affect relationships, with “trust” issues being common place. This in turn can affect self-worth, mental health and physical health too.

CSA is now understood as a non-specific risk factor for a range of negative outcomes including PTSD and complex trauma, substance misuse, relationship issues, ill-health and encounters with the criminal justice system.

Some children who have been sexually abused have a pre-existing vulnerability, for example, they had been removed from their parents because of neglect, and placed in care.

The trauma can be further influenced by the sense of betrayal, the sense of being disbelieved and/or belittled and the lack of accountability. Further, if there is a lack of support following disclosure of the CSA, this too can compound the trauma that has been sustained or developed.

It is noteworthy that trauma was a key theme for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It recognised trauma as a major impact of CSA. We discuss with Dr Salter how this reflected in the Royal Commission’s work, for example, in “bearing witness” to what it was hearing from survivors. This was a feature interestingly of the United Kingdom Child Sex Abuse People's Tribunal (UKCSAPT). It is understood from trauma research that when victims are listened to and not just heard and their experiences considered, there can be a lessening of their symptoms.

We also discuss the understanding and promotion of a trauma informed culture which we believe engenders a holistic approach to survivor needs and issues.

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