PTSD is a reality for sexual assault victims, says women's advocate

The executive director of Halifax's Avalon Sexual Assault Centre says she's not surprised that research has found women who suffer trauma are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men.

New CBC documentary looks at propensity of civilian women to be more vulnerable to PTSD than men

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, women in the general American population who suffered trauma developed PTSD at a rate of 10 per cent, compared to four per cent for men. (CBC)

The executive director of Halifax's Avalon Sexual Assault Centre says she's not surprised that research has found women who suffer trauma are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men.

"The people who work with the kids and survivors of sexualized violence have been very aware of the reality of sexual assault trauma, PTSD, as impacting the people who have been victimized," Jackie Stevens told CBC Radio's Information Morning.

PTSD is usually associated with military personnel who have been in combat or first responders called to crisis situations.

PTSD in civilians

But a new documentary on CBC's The Nature of Things this week takes a look at the propensity of civilian women to be more vulnerable to PTSD than civilian men. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, women in the general American population who suffered trauma developed PTSD at a rate of 10 per cent, compared to four per cent for men.

"I've made other documentaries with military personnel who have PTSD, but we were trying to expand people's knowledge of the fact that PTSD doesn't just hit the military," said Pat Reed, who produced PTSD: Beyond the Trauma for The Nature of Things.

"A lot of people who suffer are suffering in silence. And one reason is because, for them, they often feel that it is only the military that can really have this. They think, 'I know there's something going on in my head, and I can't put a name on it.' And that's why it takes people a long time to seek treatment."

Changes understanding of sexual assault

Stevens agrees that PTSD in the general population may be overlooked, especially in victims of sexual assault.

Treatment of PTSD in sexual assault victims is behind treatment of PTSD in first responders, said Stevens, in part because sexual assault survivors may have a hard time being believed. 

"If we recognize that it is trauma that stems from sexualized violence and abuse, seeing it as PTSD changes the way we understand sexual assault and sexual abuse. So, hopefully it breaks down that pattern of blame and shame and it validates that this is something that is happening to someone," said Stevens.

PTSD symptoms manifest differently for different people. Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings or dreams related to the trauma, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression or outbursts of anger.

With files from Information Morning