CNC helps explain how teenage mental health might improve in a world without sexual violence

Evidence from CNC has shown that eliminating sexual violence, such as sexual assault and harassment, could reduce serious mental health problems among teenagers.


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What we asked you

You have told us that mental health is one of the most important issues facing your generation. Every time we visit you, we ask you a series of questions about your mental health and wellbeing, such as how often you felt:

  • so depressed that nothing could cheer you up,
  • hopeless,
  • restless or fidgety,
  • everything was an effort,
  • worthless,
  • and nervous.

When you were age 17, we also asked you to answer some questions privately on the interviewer’s tablet. We asked you if anyone made an unwelcome sexual approach to you, or assaulted you sexually in the past year. We also asked you if you had hurt yourself on purpose in the past 12 months.

Severe mental health problems higher among victim-survivors

Researchers at the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies compared the mental health of young people who had experienced sexual assault and harassment to their peers who were otherwise similar in their personal circumstances, health and relationships.

They found that rates of two serious mental health problems – severe psychological distress and self-harm – were higher, on average, among victim-survivors than among those who did not report experiencing sexual assault or harassment by this age. This was true even when taking into account a wide range of other factors known to affect teenagers’ risk of experiencing sexual violence, and mental ill health.

The researchers calculated that if sexual assault and harassment were eliminated, fewer young people might experience severe anxiety and depression, with rates potentially dropping by 14% among girls and almost 4% among boys. Rates of self-harming could drop by 17% among girls and just over 8% among boys.

Among study members, just over 19% of girls and 5% of boys reported someone had made ‘an unwelcome sexual approach’ to them in the past 12 months. Around 5% of girls and 1% of boys reported someone had assaulted them sexually in the past year.

Why this research matters

Teenage girls are much more likely to experience both sexual violence and mental health problems. The researchers suggested that sexual assault and harassment could be part of the reason why girls are at much greater risk of mental health difficulties than boys, from adolescence onwards.

They emphasised the urgent need for better tailored and targeted support for victim-survivors of sexual violence, to try to lessen the potential long-term impact on mental health. They also added that it is vitally important that law enforcement and the legal system provide stronger deterrents and consequences for perpetrators.

Young people affected by sexual violence or mental health issues can find support, information and details about their local NHS mental health services on the Youngminds website or can call Childline on 0800 1111.

For adults, whether you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, you can find local NHS urgent mental health helplines and a list of mental health charities, organisations and support groups offering expert advice, on the NHS website.

Women who have experienced or are experiencing violence can find appropriate local and national sources of support on the Zero Tolerance website.

Read the full research report

The impact of sexual violence in mid-adolescence on mental health: a UK population-based longitudinal study by Francesca Bentivegna and Prof Praveetha Patalay.