How sexual harassment can affect mental health

Victims of sexual harassment already face several obstacles when they come forward. Their harassers could retaliate. ...

Posted: Jan 26, 2018 1:46 PM
Updated: Jan 26, 2018 1:46 PM

Victims of sexual harassment already face several obstacles when they come forward. Their harassers could retaliate. They could be ostracized by their colleagues. They could lose their job. They could be called liars.

But alongside the economic and social tolls sexual harassment can exact, there's an invisible psychological one as well.

Few people know how to recognize the mental health issues that happen after harassment, says University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd.

"Pretty much any common form of emotional or psychological distress can be experienced after sexual harassment," Freyd says.

Related: The decision to name or not name a sexual harasser

People may suffer from anxiety or depressive issues. Some can even be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the effects may not show up for years.

"A complicated thing here is that if you have a sexual harassment or other traumatic experience and it affects you, which it generally will, you may not recognize it and it may affect you without you knowing why," Freyd says. "And you might try to bury it and not think about it, and then something brings it to mind."

Freyd points out three phenomena harassment victims often experience: betrayal trauma, betrayal blindness and institutional betrayal.

A betrayal trauma can occur when a boss or mentor abuses a positive relationship to harass the victim. That kind of trauma can result in betrayal blindness, which is when a victim intentionally looks the other way to prevent confronting those feelings of betrayal.

Institutional betrayal usually occurs when a company or organization does nothing to prevent or end harassment (or in some work cultures, even encourages it).

Related: Are older generations more tolerant of sexual harassment?

But some researchers still debate whether or not sexual harassment can be counted as a trauma, says Bill O'Donohue, psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and director of the Victims of Crime Treatment Center.

He says workplace harassment in particular can have severe consequences on a person's life.

"Sexual harassment in the workplace can involve more of a threat to a person's wellbeing because their livelihood is at stake," he says. "Not only does it provide all the negative consequences of any sexual assault, but it also affects somebody's ability to put food on the table and other functions that a job provides for you, including a sense of accomplishment, a network of friends, a meaningful career."

With Freyd's guidance, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In Foundation created a series of "self-care guides" to help women process and share stories of sexual harassment. In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional, Freyd says expressive writing can be a great tool for those who are looking to understand how a variety of mental health problems -- depression, anxiety and more -- can be linked back to their harassment experiences.

"Helping women think about self-care -- what their options are, women coming together in small groups and supporting each other -- we know it's effective, says Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org. "We think it's important to get all those pieces right."

Tell us about the conversations you've had about sexual harassment. Share your response here and your response could be featured in an upcoming story on CNNMoney.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 207333

Reported Deaths: 2759
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah40422614
Washington26826249
Marion23473324
Clackamas18967235
Lane13934165
Jackson11566146
Deschutes1004182
Umatilla861687
Linn563681
Yamhill478979
Klamath477878
Polk401356
Douglas390683
Josephine362372
Malheur362163
Benton327322
Jefferson237539
Coos217537
Columbia192629
Union150224
Wasco145530
Lincoln143721
Crook129423
Hood River121833
Morrow115716
Clatsop10609
Baker103015
Curry72511
Tillamook6604
Grant5527
Lake4688
Harney4359
Wallowa1945
Gilliam811
Sherman701
Wheeler351
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3811723

Reported Deaths: 63424
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles124816124461
Riverside3017994627
San Bernardino2993724873
San Diego2819363777
Orange2731285114
Santa Clara1201942193
Kern1108471405
Sacramento1079131737
Fresno1029961724
Alameda898191280
Ventura817271032
San Joaquin748081440
Contra Costa70818813
Stanislaus635581070
Tulare49808850
Monterey43842432
San Mateo42725581
San Francisco37287556
Santa Barbara34624455
Solano33797267
Merced32317481
Sonoma30974317
Imperial28880741
Placer23633300
Kings23209247
San Luis Obispo21448261
Madera16652245
Santa Cruz16246209
Marin14207230
Yolo14157212
Butte12662198
Shasta12616235
El Dorado10415117
Napa1002980
Sutter9672113
Yuba651951
San Benito611163
Lassen579925
Tehama573963
Nevada493275
Humboldt451449
Mendocino435150
Tuolumne421971
Amador374347
Lake356445
Glenn243527
Siskiyou239837
Colusa228818
Calaveras220956
Del Norte14658
Inyo143438
Mono12984
Plumas7376
Modoc5635
Mariposa4657
Trinity4246
Sierra1170
Alpine890
Unassigned340
Medford
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 80°
Brookings
Partly Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 55°
Crater Lake
Partly Cloudy
81° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 80°
Grants Pass
Partly Cloudy
81° wxIcon
Hi: 96° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 80°
Klamath Falls
Partly Cloudy
60° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 60°
Dangerous heat wave through the weekend
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events