Sexual assaults can have a tremendous impact on the mental and physical health of the women that experience them, making it very important that campuses support survivors to enable their success.
Authored by Tasia Muse, Fahrenheit Creative Group
College campuses are generally touted as places for personal growth, education, and exploration. However, for far too many students, campuses often come to represent sources of immense stress and anxiety that severely affect their mental and physical health. The 2018 National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association revealed that 63 percent of college students in the United States reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety during the previous year. In addition to the stress that comes from navigating new environments and demanding coursework, many college students—many of them young women—experience trauma related to sexual assault. This compounded stress and trauma can have a significant negative impact on students’ academic performance, and their mental and physical health.
Women’s History Month presents a great opportunity for campuses to address the historical and contemporary impact of sexual assault on students and discuss the specific ways sexual assault affects the female students’ mental health and well-being. Initially launched as National Women’s History Week under President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the celebration would later become Women’s History Month under the Reagan administration in 1987 is hailed as a time to recognize the achievements and legacies of women’s contributions. President Carter designated National Women’s History Week in a statement that highlighted that fact “too often women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed.” The movement to make campuses safer—to protect all students from sexual assault—has been led by women whose names and contributions may never be known, but the “leadership, courage, strength and love of the women” who have worked to change the culture on college campuses across the country has made real change. However, there is still more work to be done.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, an estimated 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault while in college. This staggering statistic is even more daunting when coupled with the fact that in 2017, women represent nearly 60 percent of all college students. Trauma from an assault can have severely detrimental mental and physical effects. Studies have shown experiencing sexual assault is linked to the subsequent development of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some survivors may also develop suicidal ideation and other harmful coping mechanisms, such as binge drinking and substance abuse, which increase the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses later in life.
After an assault, a survivor may begin to suffer academically, which can magnify their mental or behavioral health issues. Research indicates that the grade point averages from semesters during which women are assaulted and the following semester, are lower than those of women who had not been assaulted. In addition to decreased GPAs, sexual assault can affect other decisions related to a woman’s college career, with some women electing to drop classes, change majors, or even change universities. Most of these women pass through systems of higher education without connecting their low grades to sexual assault—and without faculty, staff or administrators identifying sexual assault as a key factor in the academic performance or mental health of students.
To mediate the impact of the assault on women’s college experience and academic success, all hands must be on deck. Campuses should build on historical successes of dozens of campuses while looking to innovate and expand programs to address new threats, such as harassment and retraumatization online. Administrators, faculty, health care providers, support staff, and law enforcement must create a supportive and compassionate campus culture conducive to healing. Campuses have to prioritize creating an atmosphere where women feel safe to report sexual assault incidents. They can improve safety and monitoring in areas where students feel less secure, provide safe spaces and staff support to manage incidents, and create an atmosphere of intolerance for sexual violence. The response a survivor receives after disclosing their experience to others is significant, as negative social reactions are linked to increased symptoms of PTSD, depression, and excessive drinking.
On a more direct level, campuses should continue to support survivors through mental health support providers and rape crisis centers. These actions have been shown to positively affect the mental health of survivors who may have received negative reactions after reporting an incident to law enforcement. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that as the number of students attending college continues to increase, addressing sexual assaults on campuses is now more urgent than ever.
So how can campuses best create an environment that supports survivors? The Changing Our Campus Culture website provides a list of resources that offers guides and fact sheets that lays the groundwork for its creation. At the cornerstone of this environment, must be a multi-disciplinary coordinated response to sexual assaults on campus, as this ensures that at every point of interaction in the survivor’s journey, they feel someone is advocating for their healing and best interest. Due to the fact that every incident, survivor, and campus is unique, it is important to also understand that while there are general best practices, there is no single all-encompassing guide to deconstructing harmful rhetoric and perceptions of assault. Campuses should look to resources that are geared toward the students they primarily serve, such as minority- serving institutions and community colleges, to help as well.
During Women’s History Month and beyond, the women who are survivors of sexual assault must receive the support and assistance they deserve, so that prior histories of assault, do not impede their ability to achieve academic success and create a bright future for themselves, for their campuses, and for the country.