The mental health impacts of sexualisation, family violence and assault

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The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System provides an opportunity to consider the social and economic factors that contribute to poor mental health using a gender lens. Today’s analysis, by Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) and Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah) of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (@GoodAdvocacy), provides an overview of how rigid gender stereotyping creates a cascade effect of experiences that compromise women’s and girls’ mental health. This is the fourth in a 4-part series based on Good Shepherd’s submission; Part 1 provides an overview of the gendered nature of mental health, Part 2 discusses the related issue of economic inequality, and Part 3 examines the influence of financial hardship.

Women’s experience of violence and mental health

Experiences of violence have a profound impact on women’s health and wellbeing, and can lead to chronic physical or psychological impairment and ongoing trauma for women and children. Intimate partner violence is defined as “a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviours, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion, that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners.” This form of violence takes many forms and is intended to humiliate, manipulate and control.

Abusive relationships are correlated to poor overall physical health, including sleep disorders, an increase in chronic conditions, and reduced reproductive and gynaecological health. They are also linked to severe mental health effects, including experiences of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), anxiety, depression and self-harm. There are indications that traumatic brain injury leaves women more prone to severe and ongoing mental health problems compared to men. Even mild head injuries can result in poor mental health.

With one in six women experiencing physical or sexual violence by current or former partner and one in three women experiencing physical violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15, demand on the mental health service system is likely to increase in future.

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis has shown a three times increase in the likelihood of depressive disorders, a four times increase in the likelihood of anxiety disorders, and a seven times increase in the likelihood of PTSD among women who have experienced family violence. An Australian study indicates that 89 per cent of women exposed to three or four types of gender-based violence have experienced a mental disorder.  Women who have experienced violence also report higher rates of suicide attempts, with 35 per cent of women exposed to gender-based violence reporting suicide attempts (ibid.).

While there are a range of factors that sit behind the high incidences of gender-based violence that women experience in Australia, one factor that starts at a disturbingly young age is adherence to rigid gender stereotypes. The following section explores how these stereotypes also erode mental health for women and girls.

Gender stereotypes and sexualisation

Reducing women’s experiences of gender stereotyping, sexualisation and violence would do much to improve their mental health.  Photo credit: Pexels.

Reducing women’s experiences of gender stereotyping, sexualisation and violence would do much to improve their mental health. Photo credit: Pexels.

Gender stereotypes affect all of us. They have particular impacts on men’s mental health and help-seeking behaviour. For example, rigid conceptions of masculinity, including the stereotype of the stoic Australian male, have been shown to be strong contributing factors in male suicide rates. In one study almost all of the men reported that these beliefs led them to isolate themselves when feeling down, while failure to manage emotions was perceived as a loss of control and led to anxiety about having these ‘weaknesses’ revealed to others.

Gender inequality affects girls from a very young age, beginning with stereotypes and reinforced through practices such as giving girls less pocket money than boys despite their greater share of household chores, as detailed in Growing Up Unequal. A staggering 98 per cent of 10-17 year old Australian girls surveyed by Plan International Australia said they did not receive equal treatment to boys. After inequality, the girls surveyed by Plan were most concerned with being scrutinised for their appearance rather than appreciated for their abilities and talents. Almost all (93 per cent) of the survey respondents aged 15-17 said it would be easier to get ahead in life if they were not judged on their appearance.

Women are routinely viewed as sexual objects by others, with negative effects for women’s mental health and wellbeing. Perceptions of sexualised portrayals of girls can lead people to see them as lacking intelligence and other mental attributes, and moral worth. In one study, young girls who were depicted in a sexualized manner were perceived as more responsible for behaviour that harmed them; people also cared less about them when they were harmed and were less likely to offer assistance.

The complexity of social networking, an increasingly visual tween culture and the early sexualisation of girls have also been identified as factors negatively affecting girls in the middle (8-12) years. Other factors for girls include the early onset of puberty, which can create emotional and mental health difficulties. Conversely, poor mental health may also trigger the early onset of puberty (Ibid., p. 24). Girls who experience the early onset of puberty can face social and sexual risks due that stem from gender inequality and stereotypes.

These issues, combined with the average onset for eating disorders between the ages of 12 and 25 years, (with a median age of around 18 years), mean that young girls are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health from a young age. This is, in fact, precisely what the data is revealing. While it has been reported that young people’s mental health is deteriorating, disaggregating the data indicates that it is young women’s mental health which is driving the increase. For example, look at the differences in self-harm and suicide ideation for males and females aged 14-15 in the chart below.

Data indicates young women are facing a mental health crisis in Australia. Data drawn from LSAC data,  AIHW .

Data indicates young women are facing a mental health crisis in Australia. Data drawn from LSAC data, AIHW.

In order to understand women’s compromised mental health, their unique experience of the world – including experiences of gender inequality, sexualisation, and all forms of family violence – must be incorporated into viable responses. We need to create healthier environments for girls and young women to develop their sense of self, and do better to protect women from all forms of violence and discrimination.

If this post raises issues for you please contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 for mental health support.

For assistance with any experiences of family and domestic violence, call 1800 RESPECT.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.