How to ask adult mental health clients about sexual abuse
Jasmine B. MacDonald, Elly Quinlan
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Individuals who have experienced sexual abuse are more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes. There is strong research evidence indicating that the experience of child sexual abuse is a unique risk factor for the development of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and sexual dysfunction (Noll, 2021). Research has also shown experiences of child sexual abuse to be associated with eating disorders, personality disorders and psychosis; however, other kinds of abuse may be contributing to this association (Noll, 2021). An Australian study indicated that adult survivors of sexual abuse are more likely than a matched control group to access mental health services and have higher prescription rates for psychopharmacological medication (Guha, Luebbers, Papalia, & Ogloff, 2019).
Mental health practitioners indicate that having knowledge of a client’s abuse history allows them to develop more effective clinical formulations, risk assessments and treatment plans (Young, Read, Barker-Collo, & Harrison, 2001). However, clients may only disclose their abuse with practitioners if they feel safe to do so (Chung, Fisher, Zufferey, & Thiara, 2018; Follette, La Bash, & Sewell, 2010; Read, McGregor, Coggan, & Thomas, 2006). Delayed disclosure and non-disclosure of sexual abuse are linked to greater levels of psychological distress and reduced access to appropriate support (Ahrens, Cabral, & Abeling, 2009; Bak et al., 2005).
This article outlines:
- why adult survivors of sexual abuse may not disclose their abuse experiences to mental health practitioners
- why practitioners might avoid asking about it
- research findings from mental health practitioner samples on how to safely ask clients about sexual abuse histories.
Although not all mental health clients will have experienced sexual abuse or other kinds of trauma, asking all clients about their trauma histories is a way to manage cases in a trauma-informed way (Agar, Read, & Bush, 2002; Young et al., 2001). For this reason, the practitioner strategies covered later in this article refer to practice with adult mental health clients generally.
The evidence base described in this article is still emerging and tends to be descriptive in nature. It provides useful insights into client experiences as well as practitioner attitudes and practice strategies. Because of the current lack of evidence on the efficacy or effectiveness for client practices, the practice strategies reported here are those identified in research that has sampled mental health practitioners and asked them what they have found works best. These strategies have not been rigorously compared to alternative strategies with respect to client outcomes. In practice, this means it is useful to gauge the response the client is having to the enquiry, explain why you are asking about sexual abuse experiences, and prioritise the wellbeing of the client above the information-gathering process.
Why adult mental health clients may not disclose their sexual abuse histories
Survivors of sexual abuse may experience self-loathing, self-stigma, shame and mistrust of others (Deitz, Williams, Rife, & Cantrell, 2015; Dorahy, 2017; Gruenfeld, Willis, & Easton, 2017). They are less likely to disclose their sexual abuse history if they perceive the practitioner to be lacking empathy, dismissive or judgemental, or not believing their disclosure (Ahrens et al., 2009; Farber, Feldman, & Wright, 2014; Hennrick & Byrd, 2019; Page & Morrison, 2018; Starzynski & Ullman, 2014). When a practitioner responds with shock, disgust, anger or sadness, the client might feel vulnerable, overwhelmed and unlikely to disclose again in the future (Farber et al., 2014; Hennrick & Byrd, 2019; Nixon & Quinlan, 2021).
Why mental health practitioners might avoid asking clients about their sexual abuse histories
Mental health practitioners do not routinely ask clients about their sexual abuse histories. Research reviews of evidence from English-speaking Western countries indicate practitioner-reported enquiry rates as low as 18% (Hepworth & McGowan, 2013) and that client-reported enquiry by practitioners occurs in less than a quarter of cases (Read, Harper, Tucker, & Kennedy, 2018). Practitioners report not wanting to ask about client sexual abuse histories because of fear of damaging the therapeutic alliance, embarrassing the client, exacerbating the client’s condition and negative psychological impact on the practitioner from hearing the client’s story (Agar et al., 2002; Nixon & Quinlan, 2021; Young et al., 2001). Other reasons include personal discomfort for the practitioner, stigma of sexual abuse, low practitioner confidence and inexperience in responding to disclosures (Read et al., 2018).
When and how to ask clients about abuse histories
This table summarises research findings from mental health practitioner samples on when and how to safely ask clients about sexual abuse and other abuse histories.
|When to ask|
Tip: Using an assessment form with an abuse section increases abuse disclosure rates from 17% to 60% across abuse types (Agar et al., 2002).
|When not to ask|
Tips: If the abuse history is not established during initial assessment, this can be documented in the case notes so that a follow-up enquiry about abuse can be made in a later session (Young et al., 2001). Any formulations and treatment plans should be considered provisional until a full abuse history is assessed (Young et al., 2001).
|How to ask|
Mental health practitioners are able to develop more effective clinical formulations, risk assessments and treatment plans when they have knowledge about the client’s sexual abuse history (Young et al., 2001). However, adult mental health clients may choose not to disclose their experiences of abuse without being prompted. Reasons for this include self-loathing, self-stigma, shame, mistrust of others and previous experiences with practitioners who were perceived to lack empathy, be dismissive or were shocked by previous disclosures.
Mental health practitioners can facilitate disclosures of abuse from the clients they support by:
- incorporating routine enquiry about sexual abuse into the initial assessment with a client unless contra-indicated (see ‘When not to ask’ in the table above)
- providing a safe space for disclosure
- keeping their personal responses in check when disclosures occur.
Further reading and related resources
- Helplines, telephone and online counselling services for children, young people and adults
This CFCA resource sheet is designed to provide practitioners and service providers with the contact details and links to helplines, telephone and online counselling services for children, young people and adults.
- Resources (blueknot.org.au)
This web page provides links to a range of resources designed to support practitioners and organisations engage with clients in a trauma-informed way. The resources focus on building an understanding of trauma, applying a trauma-informed lens to practice, and enhancing your evidence-based knowledge.
- Resources and tools | 1800RESPECT
This web page provides resources for practitioners supporting clients experiencing or affected by violence and abuse. The resources focus on guidelines on reporting and protection, risk assessment, collaborative practice, work-induced stress and trauma, and workplace safety.
- Establishing the connection: Guidelines for practitioners and clinicians in the sexual assault and alcohol and other drug sectors
These guidelines have been developed to build the capacity of workers in the sexual assault and alcohol and other drug (AOD) sectors in Victoria to support shared clients who experience both sexual assault trauma and substance use issues.
- Correlates of perceived helpfulness of mental health professionals following disclosure of sexual assault (sagepub.com)
A study of the perceived helpfulness of mental health practitioners when women have disclosed sexual abuse.
- Examining cultural, social, and self-related aspects of stigma in relation to sexual assault and trauma symptoms (sagepub.com)
A study of the relationship between sexual assault, trauma symptoms, cultural stereotypes, public stigma and self-stigma.
- Mental illness-related stigma in healthcare – PMC (nih.gov)
A study of the barriers that mental illness-related stigma can cause for people when accessing health care.
- Adult disclosure of a history of childhood sexual abuse: implications for behavioral psychotherapy (researchgate.net) (PDF)
A study of the client and practitioner factors that can influence the disclosure of a sexual abuse history.
- Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse
A practical guide for organisations, professionals and any other person responding to children and young people disclosing abuse.
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