The Crime Survey for England and Wales 2020 (CSEW) estimated that 1.6 million people aged 16 and over had experienced rape or sexual assault, although less than one in six reported what had happened to them.
The CSEW also estimated that 7.5% of all adults (3.1 million people) had experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse before the age of 16 years. In 2020, the police in England and Wales recorded 73,260 incidents against children.
However, despite the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse in society, the impact of sexual trauma is often not adequately dealt with during professional training. It is estimated that one in six people in the UK have experienced some form of sexual abuse or assault and those people are much more likely to have several profound, long-term effects and medical complications for the rest of their lives.
Whilst every survivor will be affected differently, the impact of trauma on the developing neural and immune system may mean a survivor of childhood sexual assault is up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide, three times more likely to have heart disease, and eight times more likely to get a cancer.
Survivors of rape and sexual assault are much more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting in flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares and depression.
Often when survivors of sexual assault need to visit a medical professional, memories can surface due to the nature of the examination and lack of control the person might feel. This can be so debilitating, that many survivors of sexual assault actively avoid seeking medical attention, making their condition worse. Survivors often make a choice not to disclose their experience of sexual assault or abuse to the authorities, and many survivors do not want their medical records to contain this information.
Many NHS professionals we have spoken to have said that they have received little-to-no training in this area. This gap in training has left many healthcare professionals unaware of the prevalence of sexual abuse and the extent to which associated trauma can impact survivors and the way they access healthcare.
- To build understanding of how the experience of rape or sexual assault affects how someone accesses or disengages from healthcare services.
- To give NHS professionals the tools and confidence to provide a trauma-informed, empowering approach to provision of care, regardless of whether or not someone has disclosed sexual assault.
- To empower survivors and let them know that they can take control of their healthcare without having to disclose sexual assault experiences if they choose not to.
- To build confidence for NHS professionals in responding effectively and sensitively if a person under their care discloses sexual assault to them.
Survivors have told us time and time again that one thing that would really help them get through their medical appointments would be for healthcare professionals to let them know what they need to do and why, and to ask for consent, for every step of the procedure.
That is why we’ve chosen to launch the project under the slogan #CheckWithMeFirst. We will roll out virtual workshop sessions targeted at key practitioners, ‘champions’, within each department who can then disseminate the information to their colleagues. This will be supported by a public social media campaign targeting survivors of sexual abuse and healthcare professionals to empower them to engage with the project at their next medical appointment.
Importantly, survivors often tell us they want the focus to remain on the reason they have sought an appointment and not switch to a focus on any past experiences of trauma.
This is why the core messaging of the #CheckWithMeFirst project is to encourage NHS professionals to make small but crucial adjustments in their approach, for example, explaining what will happen and asking the person under their care if there is anything that makes them feel anxious about the procedure before and during it, enabling the person to feel more in control. It also aims to empower survivors to let their practitioner know what might help them to better cope with their appointment, whether or not they choose to disclose recent or non-recent abuse.
The workshops will be accessible to NHS colleagues and will cover trauma-informed practice, the prevalence of sexual abuse and how this impacts the way that survivors access healthcare services, handling disclosures, and how to refer survivors to specialist support.
For more information on this project, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org