The difference between living and surviving

Anna O'Reilly, Assistant Director, writes about the impact of sexual abuse on adult survivors who didn't receive the right help as children.

In Children 1st we have the privilege to get to know and support many adults who experienced sexual abuse as children, many of whom are now parents themselves. Most were the victims of abuse over a number of years, with their abuser either being a parent, carer, close family member or someone who was in their circle of trusted adults.

None of the adults we support received any help to recover when they were children, when they really needed it. Had they done so, as adults who have struggled to put their past behind them, they can now see that if they had been listened to, understood and supported to recover, it would have made a huge difference to their adult lives – the difference between living and surviving.

The long-term impact of abuse on mental health and behaviour

Survivors tell us about the long-term and harrowing impact of the abuse they endured as children on almost every aspect of the lives: their self-esteem, confidence, mental health and wellbeing, physical health, behaviour and life choices, all having a huge impact on their life chances. For example:

  • Many survivors didn't stand a chance in school as abuse left them unable to concentrate or experiencing significant difficulties in their relationships with peers.
  • With no help with the hurt, fear and pain, some began to get into trouble with the police in their teenage years, and can see with hindsight that they were struggling as they made connections and choices of the wrong sort.
  • Trying to manage overwhelming feelings alone, many became involved in very risky behaviour: using alcohol to excess, experimenting with substances.
  • Others put themselves at risk through early sexual relationships, and can now identify this as a point when they were looking to feel loved, wanted and accepted.
  • Some felt they moved into settled relationships through marriage at a young age; again their decision-making influenced by the unresolved abuse and a strong desire to have a better life.

The impact of abuse on adults survivors’ mental health is very evident, many have gone on to be diagnosed, or as some of them would say ‘been labelled’ with some of the most profound mental health conditions including: Post-traumatic stress disorder, Bi-polar disorder, Personality disorder.

Many have spent years self-harming and others have made repeated attempts at suicide because they feel a sense of hopelessness and that their life is not worth living.

Most have been diagnosed with depression and many have been prescribed medication for years to help deal with the symptoms of childhood abuse. What the survivors understand now is all of these are appropriate responses to the experience of abuse or trauma – with no proper help to recover available when they needed it. 

The impact of abuse on physical health

While the impact of sexual abuse on mental health is something that people can easily understand, what can come as a greater surprise is the high level of physical illness amongst adult survivors.

Again, survivors we know have suffered from a wide range of serious health conditions such as:

  • enduring and life-impacting heart problems
  • poor mobility
  • asthma
  • chronic arthritis
  • chronic and enduring back and other joint pain, requiring surgery at times,
  • bowel and stomach conditions such as colitis.

This chimes with the growing awareness of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, and increasing research linking the impact of emotional trauma and high levels of stress to physical ill health, as well as mental ill health.

Is it really so surprising then that adults, who experienced significant abuse and trauma as a child, can find themselves striving to overcome significant physical health issues in adulthood, as well as recovering from the emotional and psychological impact of abuse?

Infographic: the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

The need for positive, timely support

Many adult survivors have felt most acutely distressed when they have not been offered support or have found what’s been offered unhelpful.

In contrast, timely support that helps them to feel valued, listened to, validated and understood, in a non-judgemental, open and friendly environment helps them to move on and experience a happier, healthier life.

Adult survivors tell us that sharing their experiences with the support of other survivors who understand their feelings is one of the most positive and powerful things they can do. They can start to accept they are not responsible, they are not the only one who has suffered and there are positive role models who have recovered and put the abuse behind them, giving such an important message of hope.

Survivors who seek support from our services are, on average, in their 40s. Had they been offered effective support in childhood they could have avoided many of the issues and the pain they have had to bear throughout their young and adult lives.

A powerful message of hope 

For this reason, the adult survivors we know are strong, compelling advocates on behalf of children and young people. Their message is powerful – it was bad enough that support to recover was not available for them as children – but it is completely intolerable for this to remain the case today, knowing what we know now about the impact of abuse for victims.

Their message is that support to recover is the difference between a life lived and a life merely ‘surviving’. And that children and young people who share that they have been abused, must be offered child-friendly, trauma-informed support to recover and to go on to enjoy the same life chances for health and happiness as all children.

If you have been affected by abuse of any kind, call ParentLine Scotland, Children 1st's helpline, on 08000 28 22 33. We will listen and help you get the support you need.

This page has further links to sources of support for people affected by abuse.