News & Politics

Does a "Rape Culture" Contribute to Depression on Campus?

Depression on campuses is worse than ever. Here's how rape culture impacts the mental health of students.

The statistics are shocking: one in four students who visited their campus health clinics for routine care reported symptoms of clinical depression. Even more alarming,  one in ten students have seriously considered suicide, according to arecent US-Canada study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

The researchers of the study administered detailed surveys to 1,622 students from four universities in the Midwest, Northwest, and Canada, and concluded that student depression is associated with “unwanted sexual experiences, and other forms of victimization or violence.” 

While these numbers alone raise questions, the study also reports a strong link between sexual assault and depression. A pervasive "rape culture" can affect the mental health of students, even those who are not assaulted.

The US Department of Justice estimates that roughly one in five women who attend college will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates.  

It is difficult to find precise data on both sexual assault and depression, since 60% of rape cases are not reported, and the majority of people who are depressed do not seek treatment, but the latest batch of research linking sexual assault and depression raises serious questions about whether universities are doing enough to support students’ safety and mental health.

Students who become victims of sexual assault are not only at a greater risk of developing depression--a 2010 study from the Mayo Clinic found that sexual abuse is associated with an “increased risk of a lifetime diagnosis of multiple psychiatric disorders.” 

Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist writer and activist, was raped by another student while studying at Wesleyan University. In response, Wesleyan expelled her assailant for a year, but made Friedman promise not to talk about the incident with anybody. 

Unfortunately, a12-month investigation into sexual assault on campus by the Center for Public Integrity has found that Friedman’s appalling experience is playing out dozens of times a day on campuses across America. 

The investigation concluded that student rapists often face “little or no punishment, while their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. Many times, victims drop out of school, while students found culpable go on to graduate.” 

This is a point that Friedman reiterates in her candid article for The Washington Post, where she writes that instead of finding justice, students who report being raped on campus “are encouraged not to file charges, asked about how high their heels were that night or forced into mediation with their assailants, as if this were some kind of unfortunate disagreement and not a profound and violent crime.” 

Friedman explained in an interview with AlterNet that she has turned the anger she felt after her assault into activism, because she does not want what had happened to her to continue to happen to other students. During her career, she has spoken at colleges and universities across North America to raise awareness about rape culture and promote her concept of “enthusiastic consent”. 

Friedman defines “rape culture” as a “system of institutions and behaviors that allow rape to continue unchecked.” By promoting an image of consent as “Yes means yes!” rather than “No means no,” Friedman wants to overturn the onus on victims of rape to defend themselves, as well as the idea that women who dress provocatively are asking to be raped. 

Linking sexual assault to depression, Friedman says that “the reality is that most victims of sexual assault feel like it’s their fault—the shame and abuse becomes internalized, and that of course can result in isolation and depression.”   

Although women are more than five times more likely than men to become victims of sexual assault, Friedman argues that rape culture impacts the mental health of all students. 

“Part of rape culture is about keeping women ashamed of and alienated from their sexuality. This can lead women to feel depressed even if they have not been sexually assaulted,” she says. “Rape culture also tells men that they always need to aggressively pursue heterosexual sex, while masking their emotions, which can again lead to depression.”  

A hostile rape culture, extremely competitive atmospheres in many post-secondary institutions and the abysmal unemployment rate looming as they approach graduation are all factors that contribute to high levels of distress among students. 

Unfortunately, as if all this wasn’t enough, students who suffer from invisible illnesses such as depression, which do not exhibit obvious physical signs, often have trouble gaining understanding and support when their illnesses affect their studies. 

After Kaitlin Blanchard, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she needed to lighten her workload at school. The University of British Columbia, where Blanchard completed her undergraduate degree, did not recognize her illness as a disability, which forced Blanchard to approach her professors individually to request accommodations. 

“For the most part my professors were very understanding, but I find it difficult to simply convince others that I am sick and do merit concessions. It’s very draining and sometimes a little dehumanizing,” says Blanchard.   

Although her illness was not associated with sexual assault, PTSD can be a result of assault. Blanchard agrees that rape culture can lead to depression or exacerbate pre-existing illnesses in students:  “The way that our culture segregates gendered behavior on an active/passive binary means that men who don’t fall into the active/aggressor role are very susceptible to depression," she says. "Conversely, women could also feel disempowered by the gendered positions available to them.” 

In order to address a root cause of widespread distress among students, universities should work to understand the complex connections between rape culture, depression and other psychiatric illnesses. As a minimum, all universities should provide disability centers, sexual assault support centers and counseling services. 

“We do not expect a student with a broken leg to get around campus without crutches,” says Friedman.  “Similarly, we should not expect students with invisible illnesses like depression to continue their studies without adequate support.” 


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