World Mental Health Day Calls Attention to the Needs of Sexual Assault Survivors

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World Mental Health Day and International Day of the Girl Child 

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is Mental Health of Young People in a Changing World. October 11 is also the International Day of the Girl Child. “With Her: A Skilled Girl Force.” All girls deserve to grow up with an education, skills and health care to prepare them for a full and productive life. Yet, in many countries and especially during war and conflict, women and girls face significant challenges due to gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault that affects their health, mental health and limit opportunities for their future. 

We at the Metro NY Chapter of the USNC for UN Women want to highlight the importance of supporting the mental health and wellbeing of women, adolescent girls and young women around the world, especially those in conflict areas. Recurrent natural disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies have been especially traumatic for migrant women, refugees, and internally displaced women and girls. In such crisis situations they are often more vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. All this has horrendous physical and psychological impact on mental health of survivors and women, including post-traumatic stress disorders and depression. In fact, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad have worked tirelessly towards ending sexual violence and atrocities against women and girls during armed conflicts and civil wars, and they received 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. 

While most policies on women's health have centered on reducing maternal mortality and sexually transmitted diseases in women in their reproductive years, increasing effort is being made by the 

world community to address mental and behavioral health issues of women in all age groups. Mental health concerns are rising in young girls and women in high income countries too. The determinants and risk factors are biological, political, socioeconomic, and cultural and intervention programs need to address them. Women and adolescents in low- and middle-income countries are particularly vulnerable because gender-based norms and culture in these countries leave them with little or no power and limited opportunity to voice their issues. 

While the #MeToo movement has spread across the world and women are more willing to speak out against sexual assault and harassment, there are often significant mental health implications for survivors–whether they have come forward or chosen privacy–due to shame, fear, embarrassment, and fear of being blamed. The mental health burden of women, including survivors of sexual harassment and abuse and the stigma associated with them must end. We need to listen to survivors, believe them, stand with them and create safe spaces for support. Dr. Cynthia Grguric, an international psychologist who has treated hundreds of women and couples in the US. Europe and Africa spoke of women who have no power in their homes, no control over their lives, yet who survive rape and torture when given support that is meaningful and culturally appropriate. 

The Sustainable Development Goals focus on enhancing opportunities for health, education, economic opportunities women and girls and the elimination of gender-based violence to achieve women’s empowerment and gender equality. Mental health must be recognized as vital component of health. Addressing these complex issues will require strengthening of public health systems around the world as national governments must recognize and increasingly take responsibility for addressing mental health issues in their populations. 

The Metro NY chapter partnered with Berlin Cameron on October 10 to sponsor a workshop called “Finding Her Balance: Women’s Mental Wellness in the Workplace.” #findingherbalance. 

Keynote speaker Amber Rae, author of “Choose Wonder Over Worry” spoke eloquently and passionately about moving beyond your fears and doubts and shift the way you relate to yourself and others. She encouraged reaching out to others to overcome the fear of being alone: “All the things that make us feel alone connect us as humans”. The Metro NY Chapter’s panel, led by Mary Luke, President, and international psychotherapist, Dr. Cynthia Lee Grguric focused on #MeToo and Mental Health in the Global Workplace. Dr. Grguric: “It is always amazes me as I work with women who have experienced excruciating violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the women fleeing from ISIS, that one of the most healing therapies is to support and give witness to their pain. Through social media, millions of women around the world are now able to share their stories and finally be heard. We must listen, believe and support women when they reach out”. 

Blog written by Mita Saksena, Ph.D.

Mary Luke