We need to discuss mental illness and sexual assault
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Trigger Warning: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault.
I was 19 the day I was raped.
I was a bright woman entering my sophomore year of college. I had made it onto the Dean’s List, been offered a position as a Resident Assistant, just finished a music tour in Guam with my beloved college choir, and had a wonderful new boyfriend. Life was sunny.
At the same time, I had lost 15 pounds in ten days, slept a maximum of three hours a night, felt invincible and extremely sexy, and changed my attitude and appearance drastically in the matter of one week. I was completely manic.
The night I was sexually assaulted, I was at a party. I drank heavily, I suggested jumping into the pool, I took off my dress, I sang the words to the music louder than anyone else. I was the life of the party. Until I came back to consciousness with a stranger on top of me, holding me down, in a body that was foreign to me, in a mental state that was more confusing than ever.
It took me two years to tell anyone. I finally spoke about it during a group session at an outpatient facility after I had a nervous breakdown. This is also how long it took for me to get diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar II.
Because of my bipolar disorder, I spent two horrifying years in rapid-cycling hypomania, experiencing suicidal depression and mood swings. I tried to show the world that I had it all together by putting on a facade — I was an enthusiastically involved hard-working college student! Yet I was secretly drinking myself to sleep, repeatedly attempting to kill myself, and barely surviving in a body that I didn’t know anymore.
We need to talk about mental illness and sexual assault.
During hypomanic episodes, my sexuality is completely out of my control. In fact, like my mood, my sexual desires change as quickly as the weather. This is hypersexuality — a symptom of bipolar disorder that isn’t commonly talked about.
It’s also why I blamed myself for my own sexual assault.
According to Sex Health Matters, when hypersexuality is present during a manic episode, a person may “have a significant increase in sex drive that can’t be satisfied and engage in impulsive, risky sexual behaviors.” Further, Dr. Bryan Bruno, Medical Director at Mid City TMS, tells me that “mental illness can affect a person’s ability to consent to sexual activity. When patients experience hypersexuality, they may act out sexually and impulsively in ways they wouldn’t normally choose to behave.”
To date, there have been numerous clinical studies researching how mental illness affects the ability to sexually consent. Dr. Laura McGuire, sexologist and consultant, tells me that “consent is the dividing factor in whether something is sex or assault. Consent has many dimensions and factors; it must be continuous, clear, affirmative, non-coerced, [and] between people of sound mind and body.”
I kept my mouth shut for two years after I was raped.
I was ashamed of my brain chemistry. I continued down a dangerous spiral of untreated mental illness until my nervous breakdown finally led me to professional help for my bipolar disorder and vivid PTSD.
We need to talk about mental illness and sexual assault because, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.7 million adult Americans live with bipolar disorder, and RAINN finds that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men report “experiencing an attempted or completed rape” in their lifetime. According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, nearly one-third of all rape victims will develop PTSD, and more than one in ten rape victims still have PTSD.
Dr. Bruno says that “sexual assault and mental illness are still stigmatized in our country. It’s difficult enough to deal with either on its own, and having to face both is more than daunting…As society gains a greater understanding of these issues, more and more survivors may feel comfortable seeking the help they need.”
In an age of #MeToo and mental health awareness, people are still visibly uncomfortable when I say I am bipolar — and even more uncomfortable when I talk about my sexual assault.
We are failing our communities by publicizing perpetrators of sexual assault but not offering support, protection, and guidance for survivors. We are failing our communities when we don’t discuss mental health or how trauma from sexual assault harms mental health. Mental illness and PTSD are deadly because we can’t see them; they are battled in silence.
Upholding stigmas will never save a life. But starting a conversation can. Dr. McGuire tells me, “If you are assaulted, remember that your mental illness never means that you are at fault. You should still feel empowered in seeking resources and support from a medical, mental, and legal perspective. You have every right to justice, healing, and recovery.”
If you are a sexual assault survivor and need help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or an emotional crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. All of these services are available 24/7.