Effects of harassment on mental health

Jennifer E. Engen

Harassment can impact a person’s mental health, according to Dr. Lynette Adams, clinical psychologist with VA’s Office of Women’s Health at William S. Middleton VA Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.

Unwanted sexual behaviors and harassing comments – which may also relate to an individual’s identity like race, gender, sexual orientation, or other identities – can have far-reaching effects.

Harassment might lead the experiencer to feeling anger, humiliation, shame or betrayal by the harasser if it’s someone they know, particularly someone with authority over them, Adams said. “There are a lot of immediate, emotional effects,” she explained.

Definition and types

Those who experience harassment may encounter it just about anywhere – in a public space, the workplace, at home or school, in person, online, by phone or text. Anyone can experience it.

The unwelcome conduct of harassment can create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment based on an individual’s race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, sex, national origin or age.

Racial slurs or unwelcome comments about a person’s religious garments are forms of harassment, as are experiences based on physical or mental disability, Veteran status, genetic information, marital status, criminal history or political beliefs.

One type, often referred to as workplace harassment, can take many forms: verbal, written, physical or visual. It may involve bullying, retaliation in the workplace, or derogatory comments, even during a job interview.

Another specific type is sexual harassment, which is unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature including but not limited to sexual advances, pressure for dates or sexual favors, and other unwelcome gestures.

Tough on the body and mind

“When harassment is repeated and recurrent, it can be tough on the body. It adds up over time and can affect wellbeing,” Adams said. “It can exacerbate physical conditions like high blood pressure or lead to sleep disturbance.”

She explained that repeated harassment-related experiences, particularly encounters tied to identity, may lead to poor emotional, mental and physical health outcomes. Over time, harassment can feel traumatic and lead to depression or anxiety, or symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That’s why I think it’s so important to raise awareness on how harassment might affect mental health,” she said.

What if an individual experienced trauma in the past? Could a new incident of trauma exacerbate previous mental health injuries?

“Experiences with trauma affect everyone differently and past experiences do often impact how we react to current experiences,” she said. “Sometimes harassment includes experiences of betrayal that can invalidate feelings of trust and feeling of belongingness.”

Healing is Possible

Harassment is not the experiencer’s fault. It can happen to anyone, no matter how strong or smart. Each experiencer may feel differently afterwards, but recovery from the hurt of harassment is possible.

“People are resilient, and social support goes a really long way,” Adams said. “Reach out, ask for help. No one has to get through the experience of harassment alone.”

VA offers support

If you experience or witness harassment at a VA medical facility, inform a VA employee such as your primary care provider, the patient advocate, Vet Center director, harassment prevention coordinator, or VA Police.

Decide who to tell, report the incident, and reach out for help to build healthy coping skills.

If you need mental health support, you can learn about the different types of support available and find a mental health provider on the VA Mental Health Program website.

If you are in mental health crisis or having suicidal thoughts, the Veterans Crisis Line offers support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through one of the following options:

Effects of harassment on mental health

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