A Study of Sexual Assault: Strategies for Mitigating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Sexual assault is a crime that strips the victim of power and control, leaving them vulnerable and at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Previous studies have primarily focused on the long-term consequences, diagnosis, and treatment of victims of sexual assault. These studies did not emphasize the description of the personal responses of the victim, or the responses of the professionals to them within 72 hours following the assault (acute treatment period). The current study investigated the factors that either mitigate or exacerbate the trauma associated with sexual assault. The first part included interviews with medical, legal, and counseling professionals who interact with victims. The second part involved observation and examination of three sexual assault case studies. Through the interviews with professionals it became increasingly obvious that the process is far from patient centered. Rape kit examinations are extensive, invasive, and time consuming. Because Emergency Room doctors are typically too busy and poorly trained in administering them they may often respond to victims with indifference, and even frustration. A prosecuting attorney's livelihood depends on the number of cases that they win. Therefore, these attorneys will not prosecute a case unless the victim is thought to be a strong, believable witness. The police officers are responsible for investigating and building a strong case, so are often skeptical of the victim's story. They may even go as far as avidly trying to prove that the victim is lying, rather than supporting the victims and working to investigate the assailant's guilt. In the observation of three cases it was evident that the process sometimes was a source of further trauma for the victim. The results of both the interviews and the case studies indicate the need for the strong patient-centered approach to treatment that is provided by the victim advocates. Because of the fragile physical and psychological state of most sexual assault victims immediately following assault, more attention must be given to the treatment and care of victims in the acute stage of treatment. Reforms, specially regarding training for police officers and prosecuting attorneys concerning the psychological affects and ramifications of evaluating the victim's potential as a witness in the early stages of the process deserve further attention. Future studies that would investigate whether improper treatment in the acute stage of treatment can serve to further traumatize the victim and lead to increased psychological morbidity are recommended.