MENTAL ILLNESS AND INSTITUTIONAL ABUSE CLAIMS

Anybody who has a legal problem usually suffers from a certain degree of anxiety and heightened stress levels.

Clients who have suffered childhood sexual abuse often present with even higher levels of anxiety. Lawyers and other professionals who deal with victims of sexual abuse will say that these clients can require more support than is usually the case.

Without wanting to generalise, the abuse may result in behavioural and other issues. Victims of abuse can display a lack of trust of people in authority. Add to this an increased likelihood that their education was interrupted by the abuse and in the case of former wards in particular by the general chaotic nature of their lives as children which in many cases contributed to poor educational outcomes and literacy levels and you have a client with more than the usual range of challenges.

It makes sense that people who have suffered from abuse as children are more likely to suffer from problems in adulthood and increasingly studies are confirming the link between child abuse and higher rates of mental illness.

An analysis of 37 US studies of people who had suffered child sex abuse found significant numbers suffered from depression. It also showed that victims of sexual abuse suffered from a substantially increased rate of suicide. [i]

Researchers have used “twin studies” to try and filter out other childhood factors that may contribute to mental illness. A 2002 Australian twin study found that in twins where one had been sexually abused and the other not, the abused twins had significantly higher rates of major depression, attempted suicide, conduct disorders, alcohol dependence, nicotine dependence, social anxiety, rape as adults and divorce.[ii]

Other studies show that victims of child sex abuse are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic symptoms, substance abuse, helplessness, aggressive behaviours, conduct problems and eating disorders. More recently child sexual abuse involving penetration in particular has been identified as a risk factor for developing psychotic and schizophrenic syndromes. [iii]

Establishing the link between psychotic illnesses/schizophrenia and child sex abuse has been particularly difficult in the past. Until recently, the cause of schizophrenia was very much seen as being a result of physiological rather than environmental factors and there was resistance in the medical world and in the courts to link this particularly damaging illness to specific stressors and in particular child sex abuse. However, in a recent case in New Zealand the Judge considered two issues:

Whether medical science recognizes that a causal link can exist as between sexual abuse and schizophrenia;Whether on the facts of the case in question a link has been established.[iv]

In finding that there was a link between the plaintiff’s schizophrenia and his childhood sexual abuse, the Judge referred to various research studies and a UK judgement of A v The Archsbishop of Birmingham [2005] EWHC 1361 in which Justice Clarke concluded that the plaintiff in that case was suffering from schizophrenia and that the only possible cause was the sexual abuse he had suffered.

 


[i] The long-term effects of child sexual abuse (CFCA Paper No 11-January 2013

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] LS v Accident Compensation Corporation [2013] NZACC 385 (22 November 2013)

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