In the most recent installment of Innovate’s series highlighting research publications from faculty members at the Boston College School of Social Work, we focus on a presentation from Scott Easton on “Long-term Mental Health Outcomes for Men with Histories of Child Sexual Abuse.” The presentation, which was accepted for the Gerontological Society of America’s 2015 Annual Meeting, marks the first publishable data to come out of Easton’s recently awarded National Institutes on Aging (NIA) grant.
The issue: Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse represent an underserved and under-researched segment of the population, one that is often stigmatized and in dire need of mental health services. There have been few studies that examine the long-term impact of the abuse on men’s health later life, and even fewer that employ the kind of large-scale, population-based data sets needed to exact an accurate and inclusive picture of the issues these individuals face.
The idea: Easton is employing a “life span approach” to the issue, using the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) to “track back” to the early childhood of the study’s participants who are now in middle and late adulthood. The investigation relies on complex trauma theory to examine the role CSA may play in three mental health outcomes: depression, somatization (physical symptoms as experienced due to a psychiatric condition), and hostility. The WLS is a massive source of data of more than 10,000 individuals (and siblings) who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. The WLS followed its participants from their high school graduation until the present, when many have reached their mid-70s.
The findings: Although preliminary, two main conclusions have emerged from the analyses:
- CSA has a direct relationship to all three of these mental health problems; many participants experienced potent long-term effects due to CSA more than five decades after the abuse occurred.
- Context matters – for those participants who experienced CSA and grew up in households with other issues, such as divorced or incarcerated parents, there was an additional effect that further undermined mental health.
The next steps: These findings represent one of the first population-based, lifespan studies of male survivors of CSA. Several subsequent papers are currently in development that will delve deeper into long-term mental health trajectories of male survivors. Easton plans to address questions such why do some survivors do relatively well while others endure hardship, with the end goal of identifying specific factors that explain how individuals respond to CSA. “This is an important step towards developing practical, evidence-based interventions to help these men reach more of their potential and higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction. This is where social work comes in,” says Easton.
The takeaway: “For me, the most important takeaway from this research, especially from a social work perspective, is that early intervention can mitigate a lifetime of suffering for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse,” explains Easton. “There are a variety of ways that we can begin to do this – such as screening and assessing men earlier on in life, improving access to mental health services, and developing public education campaigns to de-stigmatize what it means to be a survivor of CSA.”