Trauma and its Mental Health Consequences: Sexual Violence & Partner Abuse

In the last two months, the National Network to End Family Homelessness sent materials focused on the prevalence of trauma in our society and the impact of trauma on the mental health and well-being of people we serve. To review, more than 90 percent of people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes with multiple exposures being the norm. For low-income families and families experiencing homelessness, the number of traumatic exposures tends to be higher. This month, we highlight the prevalence of sexual violence and partner abuse[1] along with best practices and resources for supporting people who endure these experiences.

Who is impacted by sexual violence and partner abuse?

  • As many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or stalking over the course of their lifetime [2].

  • The lifetime prevalence of sexual violence against transgender people ranges from 25 percent to over 65 percent [3].

  • Partner abuse is as prevalent in same-sex relationships as it is in heterosexual relationships with as many as 1 in 3 people in same-sex relationships experiencing partner abuse [4].

What are the health and mental health consequences of  sexual violence and partner abuse?

  • People who report a history of partner abuse may also report post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, flashbacks [5], chronic pain, frequent headaches, difficulty sleeping, activity limitations, and poor physical and mental health [6].

  • People respond differently to the experience of sexual violence and abuse. Guilt, anger, distrust, fear, numbness and avoidance are common emotional responses [7].

  • Although the impact of sexual violence and partner abuse differs for different people, it has the capacity to overwhelm a person’s coping capacity often leading to physical and emotional pain, exhaustion, and behavioral changes [8].

How do we support survivors of sexual violence and partner abuse?

  • We can develop trauma-informed programs and follow the lead of survivors. Not everyone wants to speak about their trauma histories and no one should ever be forced to do so. If a client discloses information related to sexual violence or partner abuse, listen attentively, believe what they tell you, and affirm their experiences. It is important not to interrogate survivors about their experiences, as intrusive questions can negatively impact mental health and well-being. Instead, thank survivors for sharing their experiences with you, ask them how they want to proceed, and how you can be supportive as they heal.

  • Try to create opportunities for survivors to reclaim power over their lives. Isolation, helplessness and lack of  control are core components of partner abuse and sexual violence, and survivors may feel that they have little agency over their lives. Make sure those accessing services at your organization have the autonomy and support to identify their goals and make decisions for themselves based on their own understanding of their needs, priorities and wishes.

  • If you’re not an expert, don’t act like one. Various organization across the country are working closely with survivors to meet their immediate and long-term needs. Familiarize yourself with national and local resources so you can support clients in the future. Here are a few places to start:


1 – Partner abuse is also often referred to as domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
2 – Breiding, M.J., et al. (2014). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence victimization—National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States. Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 63(SS-08), 1-18; World Health Organization statistics on violence against women:; 1in6 statistics on violence against men:

3 – J.M. Grant, L.A. Mottet, J. Tanis, J. Harrison, J.L. Herman, and M. Keisling, 2011, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, accessed Feb. 4, 2011; Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People:

5 – RAINN, effects of sexual violence:

6 –  Breiding, et. al; Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen. J., Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

7 – Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Common Reactions:
8 – Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.