Mental Illness and Sexual Assault: Why It’s Important To Talk About It

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Trigger Warning: talk of sexual assault.

To discuss this issue, I will be using my own personal experience with both mental health and sexual assault. I was diagnosed with Bipolar II in March 2017. 

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which a person experiences drastic mood swings or “episodes”. There are different types of bipolar disorder, and everyone experiences a range of symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, bipolar disorder isn’t just switching between “happy and sad”, nor is it simply experiencing mood swings. The two recognised episodes of bipolar disorder are manic and depressive, though it’s common to go through periods where neither episode occurs. According to Bipolar UK, approximately 1 in 20 people have bipolar disorder.

Hypersexuality can be a symptom of bipolar disorder, particularly during a manic (or hypomanic) phase. Hypersexuality is recognised as a frequent or suddenly increased libido’ – though there is no formal definition. A manic episode typically involves, but is not limited to: increased energy, excessive spending, lack of sleep, racing thoughts and extreme irritability. It can also include hypersexuality, which may lead a person to engage in impulsive, risky sexual behaviours.

I experienced my first manic episode when I was 17, and I also experienced more than one sexual assault during this period. Hypersexuality wasn’t a term I was conscious of at this point. I didn’t become aware of it until a year later when I was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar II. When I described a feeling of euphoria and enhanced sexual attraction to a psychiatrist in March 2017, I was told this was fairly common for a person with my diagnosis.

Credit: Sean Kear

I didn’t, however, describe how I had also experienced two separate sexual assaults during this time – because I didn’t believe they were sexual assaults. Despite being a fierce feminist and advocate for sexual consent, I didn’t want to admit to myself that a boundary had been crossed. I didn’t want to become another victim to a disorder that I have always insisted isn’t part of me. I felt that my sexual behaviour meant that it was only a matter of time before something happened. Equally, my mood was so elevated that the assault didn’t seem to impact me that much. It was only when I moved to University and fell into a depressive episode that it all came crashing down.

Despite fights to dispel the myth that sexual assault has to be a scary figure in a dark alley, these preconceptions are still ingrained in our subconscious. The statistics don’t necessarily indicate how many people have actually experienced sexual assault, as many survivors, like me, don’t report or disclose their ordeal.

When I was assaulted by a friend, I truly didn’t believe that they could do something to hurt me and I convinced myself that I was overreacting. Although fully aware of why victim blaming is wrong, I still blamed myself. It was my fault for being so drunk; if I was sober I could have been more assertive. It was my fault for being so flirty, and if I changed my personality this wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t know how to deal with losing a friend, even if they had done something terrible. However, if he had done this to another of my friends, or a stranger for that matter, I would have dropped him instantly. My self-esteem, made unbearably low by my mental health issues, convinced me that my assault wasn’t important, because I wasn’t important.

The hypersexuality I experienced came to a strong halt at my Freshers in 2016. I got completely drunk, went out, blacked out, and woke up in a stranger’s room. To this day I still don’t know if an assault occurred that evening, but if it did I am none the wiser. Because this kind of behaviour is so normalised at University, I didn’t think it was something I could realistically feel affected by, particularly as I had spoken to a handful of people who jokingly shared their worryingly similar experience. This triggered a huge depressive episode for me, which later led to my diagnosis in the second semester of first year.

I’m not alone in blaming my mental illness for my sexual assault. Dr Laura McGuire, sexologist and consultant, explains that:

Predatory personalities are especially perceptive to this and will seek out those who may be in a mental state where they are vulnerable for coercion and manipulation. This is very tricky when it comes to protecting people who may be in hyper states of arousal. Just because someone is asking to have sex or acting seductively does not mean they are in a situation where they can consent.

The stigma behind mental illness paired with the silence around sexual assault results in a society where we feel scared to share our story, lest we’re berated for not being more careful. It’s vital for a dialogue to be opened for those who have encountered sexual assault whilst experiencing mental health issues. To be more understanding of all sexual assault survivors, it means having the awkward, uncomfortable conversations about the assaults that don’t “fit the narrative”. After all, if we aren’t fighting for everyone, we aren’t fighting for anyone.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, here are some tools and support:

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