In these past months, we have seen the headlines over headlines of a massive sexual harassment exposé in Hollywood, involving prominent American producer, and Miramax co-founder, Harvey Weinstein. A slew of female stars—as many as sixty of them (and still counting!)—has allegedly come forward with accusations of Weinstein committing sexual harassment or assault. The list includes big names like Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Lupita Nyong’o, Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevingne and Gwyneth Paltrow, among many others.

The sheer number of accusations against Weinstein prompted an online movement where women all over the world shared their own experiences with sexual harassment and rape, using the hashtag #metoo. Stories have been shared on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Members of the public have since expressed shock over the total number of women who have been sexually harassed or raped as it far outnumbers anyone’s expectations.

At least 39 women over 33 years: More and more women are coming forward to share their experience with Weinstein, with accusations of sexual harassment or assault, dating back to as early as 1980s. Photo credit: AP/National Post
At least 39 women over 33 years: More and more women are coming forward to share their experience with Weinstein, with accusations of sexual harassment or assault, dating back to as early as 1980s. Photo credit: AP/National Post

A deep psychological suffering

The victims of sexual harassment don’t just walk away with bad memories or emotional scars that heal over time. A sizeable number of them develop long term mental conditions such as depression, anxiety and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The encounter with a sexual predator can also exacerbate or trigger any existing mental illnesses that have gone into remission or is under control. A study published in 2011 has found that both men and women who were sexually harassed early in their career showed unmistakable signs of depression compared to other employees, who have never experienced sexual harassment.

In fact, sexual harassment can even lead to PTSD; especially when it involves some form of physical altercation or violence. Victims find that their mental health issues lead to a long-term dip in their quality of life, and that they’ll have to seek long term treatment to manage these symptoms.

Not just psychological symptoms – physical, too

The issue with the psychological effects of sexual harassment is that the symptoms can translate into the physical realm as well. Depression and anxiety causes headaches, bowel issues, joint and muscle aches, insomnia and others. If left untreated, the mental stress can even lead to more serious problems.

Dr Helen Wilson, a licensed Clinical Psychologist told NBC news that “the part of our brain that processes emotion... is right next to the brain stem, which deals with involuntary functions such as the heart rate and breathing.”

This is why extended feelings of stress can affect the immune system, metabolism and cardiovascular functions, leading to things like autoimmune diseases and even heart disease.

Sexual harassment can even lead to PTSD, especially when it involves some form of physical altercation or violence.
Sexual harassment can even lead to PTSD, especially when it involves some form of physical altercation or violence.

An increase in self-harm among young women

Disturbing data from a recent UK study has revealed that self-sharm among girls aged between 13 and 16 has risen by 68% over the last three years. The number of boys in the same situation has remained roughly the same; but, among the girls, there is a worrying exponential increase.

While the exact reasons of this increase are unclear, the number of reported cases of self-harm by GPs is worrying as studies suggest that they are at a higher risk for suicide. Lead author, Nav Kapur, MD, professor of psychiatry and population health, University of Manchester, UK, highlighted that the increase, however, could simply be related to problems of identification. “Youths might be more willing to talk about self-harm, parents more willing to disclose it, and physicians more likely to inquire about it.” He also noted that digital media might also contribute to the recent rise in self-harm among teenage girls. The main takeaway is that self-harm may be one of the possible outcomes of mental stress caused by sexual harassment.

As medical practitioners, the effects of sexual harassment should not be easily dismissed as it may affect community mental health as a whole. If you know of any patients, colleagues, friends or family that are suffering as a result of sexual harassment, avoid gossiping and embarrassing them behind their backs. Take solid steps to get them to seek proper treatment as this is imperative to their wellbeing. MIMS

Read more:
London doctor given the boot for sexually harassing junior female doctors
How can nurses fight sexual harassment?
More female physicians report being sexually harassed

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/18/self-harm-girls-aged-13-to-16-rose-68pc-three-years
https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/hidden-health-effects-sexual-harassment-ncna810416
http://nationalpost.com/entertainment/celebrity/at-least-39-women-over-33-years-a-timeline-of-harvey-weinstein-sexual-allegations
https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/887294
http://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j4351
https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/887294
http://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j4351