Mental Health, Youth and Sexual Violence: An FAQ


By Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, White Ribbon Campaign, and OPHEA

What is mental health, and why is it especially important to young people?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Mental health problems can include panic and anxiety, depression and other mood problems, psychosis, eating problems and other emotional, coping or addiction problems.

It is estimated that around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have mental health problems. About half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14. Without support, mental health problems can have a significant impact on a young person’s ability to engage with and succeed in their studies: “young people with mental health disorders are at great risk for dropping out of school”. As they grow older, additional challenges can accumulate, with “diminished career options arising from leaving school prematurely” and an overall “effect on productivity” and well-being.

Challenges also exist in providing helpful responses to young people dealing with mental health problems. Children’s Mental Health Ontario shares, for example, that:

  • 28% of students report not knowing where to turn when they wanted to talk to someone about mental health¹
  • Black youth are significantly under-represented in mental health and treatment-oriented services and over represented in containment-focused facilities²
  • First Nations youth die by suicide about 5 to 6 times more often than non-Aboriginal youth
  • LGBTQ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers.

On the other hand, acknowledging and proactively addressing child and adolescent mental health has many documented benefits. A growing body of international evidence demonstrates that promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives show positive returns in the lives of youth and adults alike.

What does sexual violence have to do with youth and mental health?

Common reactions to sexual violence – rape, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault or sexual harassment — align with many mental health problems. Impacts can include “shame, fear, anxiety, depression, traumatic stress reactions, and suicidal behaviours”. Research also shows that survivors experience significant psychological distress and concerns for their safety and well-being as a result of cyber-sexual harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking for sexual exploitation³.

The World Health Organization notes that sexual victimization can lead to health outcomes such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress; and behavioral outcomes such as high-risk behaviour (e.g. early consensual sexual initiation, alcohol and drug abuse). Ontario’s It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment also recognizes this important correlation, noting that “health consequences of sexual assault extend to mental health consequences [which] can be severe and long-term, including anxiety and panic attacks, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression and other mental health problems.

In addition to this, we know that young populations are at the highest statistical risk of experiencing sexual violence. For example:

  • A 2011 summary on police reported crime found that sexual crimes were by far the most common offence against girls. In particular, 47% of all violent crimes against girls under 12 reported to police were sexual in nature4
  • In a 2004 report, males made up 29% of child victims and 12% of youth victims5. For males, being under 12 years old heightens their vulnerability to being targeted for sexual offences6
  • Young women between the ages of 15 and 25 years in Canada are the age group most likely to experience sexual or relationship violence7
  • Young women from marginalized racial, sexual and socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to being targeted for sexual harassment and sexual assault8.

Today, it is well-known that stigma surrounding mental illness is widespread. Despite the existence of effective supports for mental health problems, for example, too often, there is a belief that these problems are untreatable or that people with mental disorders are difficult, unintelligent, or incapable of making decisions9.

Similar negative stigma and stereotypes also surround survivor-victims of sexual violence. There is no disputing that sexual violence has profound impacts on the lives of survivors – however, those who have been victimized also show great resilience, self-awareness and strength. Moreover, appropriate supports and a respectful recognition of survivors’ experiences can make a huge difference in their recovery10.

Given that sexual violence can have such a strong impact on youth, isn’t it better that we just don’t mention it at school? We don’t wish to upset or trigger students.

Historically, the society and cultures in which we live have recommended silence as the best way to deal with uncomfortable, misunderstood or complex issues. Think about the ways in which our parents, grandparents, elders and communities have dealt with difficult issues – grief, domestic violence, addiction, just to name a few – in the past.
The idea that we should not talk about sexual violence with young people has similar roots as a taboo or unmentionable subject. But this message doesn’t help young people.
Today, it is well-known that silence contributes to stigma and misinformation about important issues. It also leads people who are affected by these issues to think that they are the only ones facing a particular problem, when in fact they probably are not. Last, it reduces our ability to seek help when we need it.

In the past, those living with mental health problems lived with this silence. In recent years, however, public attitudes have shifted: more and more, “community groups, agencies and individuals interested in increasing awareness about mental health issues and challenging stigma” are sharing information, speaking up and raising awareness11.

Instead of silence – which allows misconceptions, stereotypes and stigma to exist, unchallenged – mental health advocates and people with lived experience are sharing truths about mental health. The Canadian Mental Health Association tell us that “to truly understand the extent of stigma and its effects, and find ways to change it, we need to hear from people who have experienced it first-hand”.

It is for this reason that schools across Ontario today participate in the province’s Mental Health and Addictions Strategy —to be a part of this solution.

The same is true for sexual violence. Education on sexual violence – including information on myths and misconceptions — goes a long way towards the prevention of sexual violence. Education offers innovative ways to challenge sexual assault myths and victim-blaming; and to reach out to diverse and young populations to talk about things that they may not be having conversations about at home.

Education on sexual violence contributes to the prevention of sexual assault by:

  • supporting young people to understand their rights
  • identifying the continuum of sexual violence (from harassment to rape)
  • supporting young people to challenge sexual assault myths
  • knowing the laws concerning sexual assault and consent
  • educating bystanders to better understand how to recognize sexual violence, and intervene and support someone else who is being targeted.

Last, education helps others learn how to respond to survivors who disclose their experiences, and direct them to helpful supports in the community. Research indicates that many survivors wish to acknowledge or talk about their experiences, but fear the reactions of others. When survivors receive a positive response from their disclosures, the benefits of talking about one’s experience of sexual violence are in fact “associated with improved psychological health, increased comfort, support, and validation, and desired outcomes such as penalizing the perpetrator and protecting others”12. Other research shows that young survivors are most likely to disclose sexual violence to a peer, family member or someone with whom they have a prior trusting relationship (that is, not necessarily to a social worker or other professional)13. For this reason alone, it’s important to talk with young people about sexual violence in the very spaces in which they spend much of their time – including with their peers, and at school.

As we can see, there are many potential gains to talking about sexual violence with young people.

With silence, none of this is possible.

I want to support students to learn about sexual violence. What can I do?

As an educator, you can support students’ access to accurate and supportive information about sexual violence:

  • Provide in-class presentations or workshops on sexual violence awareness and prevention, facilitated by a sexual violence prevention expert. Contact your local Sexual Assault Centre, and ask to speak to their Public Educator
  • Engage your students and school environment with evidence-based sexual violence prevention campaigns, such as Draw the Line and It Starts with You, it Ends with Him
  • Activate Ontario’s Mental Health and Addictions Strategy at your school:
    • Learn more about sexual violence and mental health
    • Challenge myths about sexual violence, as identified in this resource
    • Challenge myths about mental health, as identified in this resource
    • Remind youth in your life about supportive people – for example, community sexual assault centre hotlines and counsellors, youth counsellors or guidance counsellors – that they can turn to if they ever need to talk about something troubling or serious.

This resource was created by Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, in partnership with White Ribbon Campaign and Ophea.
The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) is a network of rape crisis/sexual assault centres. Our membership includes sexual assault centres from across Ontario, offering counselling, information and support services to survivors of sexual violence, including childhood sexual abuse and incest14. 29 Ontario sexual assault centres are members of OCRCC. For more information:

The White Ribbon Campaign is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, and to promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity. For more information:

Ophea is a not-for-profit organization that champions healthy, active living in schools and communities through quality programs and services, partnerships and advocacy. For more information:

1 Boak, A., Hamilton, H., Adlaf, E., Henderson, J. and Mann, R. (2016). The Mental Health and Well-Being of Ontario Students, 1991-2015: Detailed OSDUHS findings (CAMH Research Document Series No. 43).
2 Gharabaghi, K., Trocmé, N. and Newman, D. (2016). Because Young People Matter: Report of the Residential Services Review Panel.
3 Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 18.
4 Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Released on February 25, 2013. Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. p. 15
5 Juristat Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Sexual Offenses in Canada. 2004: 1
6 Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends 2006, Statistics Canada
7 Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2012, as cited in An Exploratory Study Of Women’s Safety At The University Of Toronto Mississauga: A Gender-Based Analysis by Paula DeCoito Ph.D. Social Planning Council of Peel. July 2013, 19.
8 Wolfe and Chiodo, CAMH, 2008, p. 3.
9 World Health Organization. August 2014. 10 Facts on Mental Health.
10 Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 25.
11 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 2001. Talking about Mental Illness: A guide for developing an awareness program for youth, Community Guide: 2.
12 Violence against Women Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Western University. May 2012. Overcoming Barriers and Enhancing Supportive Responses: The Research on Sexual Violence Against Women A Resource Document: 25.
13 Ahrens, C.E and Erendira Aldana. The Ties That Bind: Understanding the Impact of Sexual Assault Disclosure on Survivors’ Relationships with Friends, Family, and Partners. In Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 13:226–243, 2012.
14 Riggs, Joan. Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) Strategic Plan. April 2009, 3.


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