Women with sexual trauma from childhood gain strength in self-help groups



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Violence against women is a public health problem globally. Knowledge within the health care system about abuse in childhood as a possible cause of illness is limited, and this can lead to misdiagnoses.

“The mental symptoms of abused women can be alleviated through discussions in self-help groups run by the participants”, says GullBritt Rahm who will be publicly defending her thesis at the Nordic School of Public Health, NHV, in Gothenburg, Sweden.

GullBritt Rahm is defending her thesis in public health science “Delivered from loneliness. Health and life for women who have been subject to sexual abuse in childhood and who are now participating in self-help groups”. She will now become a Doctor of Public Health.

As a counsellor and psychotherapist, she has met a large number of women who have been subject to sexual abuse. Abused women should be offered professional help where there is knowledge about sexual abuse and its aftermath.

“However, if health care staff are going to be courageous enough to ask about and listen to accounts of sexual abuse, then greater knowledge is needed of abuse and the aftermath it can entail”, says GullBritt Rahm.

GullBritt Rahm considers that providing opportunities for participation in self-help groups can be an excellent complement. She has encountered women within child psychiatry, family counselling and counselling centres for young people, but perhaps most of all within the voluntarily staffed women’s refuge Alla Kvinnors Hus in Karlstad where she worked as a counsellor for women.

“Women who have been sexually abused during childhood often asked for group activities”, says GullBritt Rahm.

After a seminar in V?land where the national organisation Rsci, Incest Victim Support Centre, presented its self-help groups, Alla Kvinnors Hus decided to make similar arrangements in V?land.

“I became interested in researching into how the women who found their way to this type of group activity felt, what it was that led them to wanting to take part in a group, how they viewed their lives and placing it in relation to what they were exposed to as children.”

The thesis is based on material from questionnaires and interviews with women from self-help groups arranged by a variety of organisations.

One reason that women do not talk about their experience of abuse is the fear of not being believed and respected. Some women say that they tried to tell their story but felt that nobody wanted to listen to them.

Others describe the fact that their counsellor or doctor listened to them but that there was still a dimension missing, namely having the opportunity to talk to someone who had had a similar experience. The latter reason is the one that has been most frequently given as to why women want to join a self-help group.

The results of the thesis reveal that the women have poor mental health, clearly comparable with clinical groups within psychiatry. They had a low sense of continuity in life and shame was a faithful, negative companion. The women describe the way in which the group is used as a safe base where they were able to gain experience in dealing with conflicts, and to argue and take themselves seriously, experiences that they were able to try out in real life and then return to the security of the group for reflection.

GullBritt Rahm feels that the strength of the self-help groups might reside in the fact that they are run by the participants, who give and receive support and who have to take responsibility for both themselves and others.

“When this works you can start to have a more positive perception of yourself and the possibility of empowerment - taking more control over your life and your health can ensue”, says GullBritt Rahm.

Title of the thesis: Delivered from loneliness. Health and life for women who have been subject to sexual abuse in childhood and who are now participating in self-help groups”

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