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Sexual Trauma May Spark Mental Health Problems

16 June 2010

Traumatic sexual incidents may cause serious mental health problems in the years after the events, research at the University of Ulster has shown.

Using a unique investigative method, researchers at the University’s Psychology Research Institute examined the mental health of women who had visited rape crisis centres – and it showed that sexual trauma plays a role in the development of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

The propensity for trauma victims to move away from the area  in which the traumatic incident took place – thus disrupting their  social support networks – may also expose them to further mental health  risks.

Results of the analysis have recently been published in the prestigious journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

The collaborative study saw the University of Ulster link up with the University of Southern Denmark to examine the data gathered from the Danish Civil Registration System (CRS), which is a database of official information held on Danish citizens since 1968.

Professor Mark Shevlin, from Ulster’s School of Psychology, said that using the CRS was a unique type of research never undertaken in this area before.

Professor Shevlin said: “Trauma research is fraught with methodological difficulties. The use of the CRS has allowed us to conduct case-control prospective studies in a very efficient way. Our most recent study identified an association between rape and subsequent diagnosis of a psychotic disorder over a 10-year period. This study would have been virtually impossible without the use of CRS data.”

Professor Shevlin has been working alongside Professor Ask Elklit at the University of Southern Denmark, and he said that the research has important implications on treatment and developing therapies for those with schizophrenia.

Professor Elklit said: “The CRS provides researchers with information on a large number of variables related to physical and psychological health, education, employment, income, and housing. Collaborating with Ulster has provided us with the skills and expertise to link separate databases and conduct statistical analyses to help answer important psychological questions.

“For example, this has allowed us to identify social factors that increase the risk of rape or sexual victimization, and estimate the costs in terms of physical and psychological problems.”

Professors Elklit and Shevlin are planning to continue and extend their CRS research. They have commenced a project that aims to model multiple traumatic childhood experiences and subsequent psychological and behavioural problems.