The Lasting Mental Health Impacts of Childhood Sexual Trauma

Being sexually abused as a child is one of the most horrific experiences a human can be forced to endure. Yet this heinous act is far too common, and it often occurs in the home. Research in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that among children under the age of 18, 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys will experience sexual abuse or sexual assault. And 75% of adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well, according to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report. Sadly, the emotional pain of childhood sexual trauma lasts long after the abuse has ended and can have a negative impact on mental health, brain health, and cognitive function.

Sadly, the emotional pain of childhood sexual trauma lasts long after the abuse has ended and can have a negative impact on mental health, brain health, and cognitive function. Click To Tweet

Childhood Sexual Abuse and Mental Health

Suffering from sexual abuse has a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health throughout their lifetime. According to findings in the Journal of Psychology, 20%-40% of people with psychiatric disorders have a history of childhood sexual trauma. Experiencing sexual abuse during childhood is associated with a wide range of mental health disorders in adulthood, including:


20%-40% of people with psychiatric disorders have a history of childhood sexual trauma. Click To Tweet

Childhood Sexual Trauma and Brain Health

Not only does childhood sexual abuse take a toll on mental health, but it also impacts brain health and cognitive function. A 2017 study in Industrial Psychiatry Journal found that childhood sexual trauma is associated with negative changes in the structure and volume of brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, superior temporal gyrus, corpus callosum, parietal lobes, hippocampus, and cerebellum. Two of these brain regions are particularly troubling:

  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC): This region of the brain is the last to reach full maturation and continues to develop throughout adolescence and young adulthood. This area is involved in planning, attention, executive function, organization, and impulse control. It also plays an important role in keeping other areas of the brain in check, such as the amygdala (fear centers) and limbic system (emotional centers). The changes in the PFC seen in sexual trauma survivors may open the gateway to hypervigilance, paranoia, attention problems, and poorer academic performance.
  • Hippocampus: Problems in the hippocampus, which is involved in mood and memory, can also have a major impact on quality of life. Issues with depression as well as memory problems can occur. Interestingly, brain imaging studies on childhood abuse survivors show more abnormalities in the hippocampus in adults compared with children. Research on the neurobiological toll of child abuse and neglect suggests that changes to the hippocampus due to childhood abuse may be gradual and don’t appear until adolescence or adulthood.

This same 2017 study mentioned earlier found decreases in cognitive function and memory in those who suffered childhood abuse. In addition, abnormalities in the functioning of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin (a feel-good neurochemical), as well as abnormal hormonal responses have been noted in abuse victims.

Early Intervention and Treatment Can Help

One of the most promising findings in the research is that intervention and therapies can help. Early reporting of sexual abuse and early intervention can be effective in warding off structural changes in the brain and psychological issues. But it’s critical to know that it is never too late to seek treatment for abuse that occurred during childhood.

At Amen Clinics, thousands of patients who were sexually assaulted have improved their brain health, cognitive function, and mental well-being with targeted treatment. Our brain imaging work shows that you can change your brain and change your life… for the better.

Depression, anxiety, memory problems, and other issues related to childhood sexual trauma can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. As a child i was sexually abused by my father from the age of 7 it is safe to say that my relationship with men has been frought with problems as my trust in them is low and I have been married 4 times but now i have been married 37 years and have reached the age of 74 years

    Comment by Susan — April 16, 2021 @ 3:27 AM

  2. I am a person who suffered sexual assault starting at the age of 9 until I moved out at age 18. I believe because I haven’t had help I have created problems in my life. I need help and would like your guidance. It has affected my children as well Thank you

    Comment by Heidi Aucoin — April 16, 2021 @ 4:16 AM

  3. Having expeirenced abuse as a child an inti my pre teens its so important to give people like myself hope for some type of normalcy it takes such a tradgic toll…..

    Comment by Linda — April 16, 2021 @ 4:17 AM

  4. I am interested in your brain scanninh

    Comment by Kathy A Spencer — April 16, 2021 @ 5:53 AM

  5. Can that trauma cause migraines?

    Comment by Charlene — April 16, 2021 @ 6:16 AM

  6. It is very a traumatic experience you will never be the same after that … I’m suffer from depression n anxiety … I’m always angry I don’t know what happiness is …

    Comment by Meesa — April 16, 2021 @ 7:09 AM

  7. Does this include child to child?

    Comment by Barbara — April 16, 2021 @ 8:14 AM

  8. Hello Heidi, thanks for reaching out. We’d be happy to reach out to you directly with more information regarding scheduling an appointment at one of our clinics. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 16, 2021 @ 9:13 AM

  9. Hello Kathy, thanks for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you directly with more information regarding scheduling an appointment at one of our clinics. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 16, 2021 @ 9:14 AM

  10. If our insurance does not cover brain scan, what choices do we have? I know it can be quite expensive. Thank you.

    Comment by Maricela — April 16, 2021 @ 9:37 AM

  11. Hello Maricela, thanks for reaching out. Amen Clinics offers consultations and different types of evaluations based on the needs of the patient. For information regarding pricing, insurance, and financing options, please contact our Care Coordinators:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 16, 2021 @ 10:20 AM

  12. Still dealing with it at 60 y/o. never married. 1 grown Son.

    Comment by Aleta Boyette — April 16, 2021 @ 10:42 AM

  13. I was sexually abused and raped when I was a child I also was neglected and had a alcoholic father. I didn’t do well in school and believe I have learning. Disabilities
    I am interested in your brain scanning to find out what could help me

    Comment by Aileen Smithyes — April 16, 2021 @ 11:10 AM

  14. Is it too late if you were sexually abused as a child but are now over 50? My husband suffers almost all of these symptoms outlined in your article and it is very hard for him to cope.

    Comment by Bambi — April 16, 2021 @ 11:12 AM

  15. I’m surprised by the single poor quality study you chose to state the stats, which are low and thus misleading. The study you cited is based on self reports by teens. There are many many reasons this population would be prone to vast underreporting. The preeminent ACE Study reveals much higher stats: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men reported sexual abuse in the home before the age of 18. That is the gold standard.

    Comment by Rob — April 16, 2021 @ 11:29 AM

  16. Where can I find more info about very early (pre-verbal) childhood abuse?

    Comment by Abby — April 16, 2021 @ 12:15 PM

  17. How can I get my adult daughter to open up to the idea that the sexual abuse she experienced with she was 9 is affecting every aspect of her life including her children?

    Comment by Helen — April 16, 2021 @ 12:16 PM

  18. When I heard my dad in the other room with another man,performing sodomy
    It traumatized me. How do I function in day to day as people talk about this, like it should be ok? I was Very I’ll for 2 weeks, had to go to an Inpatient setting. But it has effected me for the rest of my life.

    Comment by Jenny — April 16, 2021 @ 9:22 PM

  19. I am in private practice as a Licensed Clinical Counselor. I am contracted by a residential facility for youth at risk to provide services to 16-18 y/o adolescents. I find sexual trauma at the root of most. Do you offer training for sexual trauma?

    Comment by Rhonda Robinson — April 17, 2021 @ 3:27 AM

  20. Thanks for another great article!

    Comment by Timothy Lee — April 17, 2021 @ 6:10 AM

  21. I was sexually assaulted by two of my brothers as well as my father from the time I was 5 until I was 13. In addition to that I was neglected by my mother, beaten and verbally abused by my parents and siblings. I was told repeatedly that I was not wanted, unloved and unlovable. I was kicked out at 14 (homeless for a time), returned and then left home when I was 16. It was hell.

    Comment by Sandra Vadnais — April 17, 2021 @ 8:52 AM

  22. I am also interested in what “Abby” is interested in, verbal abuse from the age of five or six to my 30’s by my father. What are the affects of this ? He had a choleric personality, unable to express love, and was a functional alcoholic. Please, you may be able to better heal Abby, myself and others here. God bless.

    Comment by Keith Olsen — April 19, 2021 @ 9:23 AM

  23. Hello Rhonda, thank you for reaching out. We’d be happy to put you in contact with our Clinical Outreach Team for more information. We look forward to speaking with you.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 19, 2021 @ 7:16 PM

  24. I was sexually abused from age 2 to end of the 5th grade. My perpetrator was my grandpa so I was around him a lot. I have high anxiety, get mad at ‘small’ things and since my teens, I have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I’m currently in Dialectical Behavior Therapy and it is helping.

    Comment by Liz — January 6, 2022 @ 12:14 PM

  25. I was sexually abused by my step dad and his father, also by my 2 stepfather. I have severe anxiety, depression and ptsd. I have had 3 marriages fail and I am all alone now. I am down for anything that will help me, thanks.

    Comment by Christina — February 28, 2022 @ 1:12 AM

  26. Thank you for writing this. Great explanation of the negative life long effects childhood trauma can have on one’s life. I am a survivor of sexual abuse that started when was only 7. 3 teenage boys took turns on me until we moved away when I was 12. I’ve been date raped 3 times and lived with an abusive husband for 11 years. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a teenager and have been hospitalized 3 times for suicidal ideation. I am now 57 and instead of getting easier my depression has gotten worse. My physical health is now poor and my cognitive function is very low. I have been deemed medication resistant so I tried TMS which worked very well for awhile until my physical health declined. I have been having a lot of trouble getting my health problems taken care of. When you are physically ill day in and day out with relentless medication resistant nausea and abdominal pain. Our health care system is broken. I know this because I am a RN and have worked more than 30 years in this business. It takes 3 months for me to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. I have to start over with a new one because I had a change in insurance. Anyway, my IEHP insurance won’t cover your services which is the way it is now in America. Unless you have the expensive PPO insurance doctors won’t see you. It’s all about money right?!
    I can say without a doubt that childhood abuse can fuck up your whole life and leave you alone and penniless . It affects every aspect of your life, especially relationships. My abusive parents didn’t role model good relationships. Same with parenting skills. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have brought a child into this horrible world. She has seen me suffer more than any child should see a parent suffer. She herself suffers from depression just as my mother before me suffered from depression. I’ve been the best mother I knew how to be but I know that my poor mental health has negatively affected her. That’s a tough burden to bear and livewith.

    Comment by Siobhan Haniffy Parsonage, RN, BSN — April 18, 2022 @ 2:25 PM

  27. I am strained from both of my sons; one is 47 and the other 23; both molested under 6 years old; both very hard to deal with and maintain a relationship; both did not tell me, until I found out through other people that they were molested; both have relationship problems with girls and decided to be safe and declare themselves gay; I am devastated, both my beautiful boys have been damaged forever and I do not know how to get close to them, they do not allow me to; I am guessing because they think I will reject them for their choices, even though I reassure them I respect these choices but cannot approve of them; they do not know I am traumatized by thinking that they are chasing to continue to be tortured and raped by choosing a gay lifestyle; my mind cannot cope with this idea. How can I be helped, so I can get close to them.

    Comment by MSC — May 14, 2022 @ 2:10 PM

  28. Hello, and thank you for reaching out and sharing with us. If you’d like more information about our therapies or services related to your needs with your sons, please contact our Care Coordinators for more information:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — May 16, 2022 @ 6:33 PM

  29. So much makes sense now. My life has been scorched earth since I was a preteen. Distant, depressed and detached. I was molested by an older cousin, I don’t recall really when or how long. Never had treatment for it either, was always too afraid to tell my parents.

    Comment by Drk — May 25, 2022 @ 4:05 PM

  30. Currently in therapy, I was molested by my older cousin I was 9-16 he was 4 yrs older than me. Was too afraid and ashamed to tell my very strict Catholic family what was going on and was afraid of being judged by them and my needs abandoned. I suffer with depression and anxious thoughts, ruminating on my past mistakes and fear that I might be a covert narcissist. Everyday seems like a rollercoaster of emotions that surface up, therapy is helping with being more mindful and having someone who I can talk to that also knows how it feels like my therapist has really motivated me to move more on the daily, be more mindful of my thoughts and emotions and slowly getting my core beliefs to change about the world and myself

    Comment by Krystal — July 29, 2022 @ 2:26 AM

  31. I was abused by a neighbor when I was 5 & again by a different neighbor at 7-9. I was also abused by my cousin at 18. Since I was 12 I’ve struggled with self harm, depression, situational anxiety & an eating disorder. I’m now 24. I never got help for the abuse, & never talked about it to anyone really until 18, I just barely scratched the surface of it with the therapist at the time & for other reasons was dropped. I never really connected the dots with my childhood, a lot that & teen years I’ve blocked out. But now I’m wondering if the abuse is what has caused my mental health & body image issues . Idk anyone else experience something similar?

    Comment by Kaleigh — October 17, 2022 @ 8:50 PM

  32. I always thought I was dumb ,then I learned that it was because of sexual abuse when young And because I felt dumb I did not know how to start a conversation with people or just be social. But as I got older, I got better but it has its cons It’s hard to be intellectual, which thanks to brain and trauma to compartmentalize my words I knew what I wanted to say… hard to attract a high value partner that will stay with you. They’re only there for my looks. But I learned I had to be my best friend instead of my enemy and I would thank myself for that when I get older so now I’m older and I’m thankful for myself for giving me a small chance of life. I started volunteering Keeping busy. But if hard time falls, it’s OK to have that down time once in a while it shows you how strong you really are .. so you water less just crops less and less as you get older and start treating yourself right..

    Comment by Tina — December 1, 2022 @ 10:41 PM

  33. This message is to last I had a typo ,lol…. but what I meant was,” do not water last year’s crops

    Comment by Tina — December 1, 2022 @ 10:46 PM

  34. I was sexually abused by a family freind when I was around 8 years old it’s stayed buried all the way up until now, I am now 21 and have been since plagued by debilitating anxiety panic attacks intrusive and suicidal thoughts how can I get better

    Comment by Amy halloway — December 3, 2022 @ 4:02 AM

  35. i was raped when i was 15, by my best friend's dad. I am now 57 and i have never received therapy…BIG MISTAKE. Not only do i suffer from anxiety/panic disorder, but i "self-medicated" myself with drugs for years. I have had two failed marriages, as well. I would love to learn some coping skills, and i want to give my current love of 8 years ALL the love he deserves. I still have feelings of inadequacy and shame that i need to get rid of, its beyond time for me to let it go.

    Comment by Beth J. — February 15, 2023 @ 9:03 PM

  36. I’m 59 and was sexually abused from age5thru 9. My life has been one bad relationship after another until I just gave up. About 10 years ago it all came out in my head as if it were yesterday. I could see it clearly. I felt sad the child in me. And everything came to light why I was so messed up. My family found out what happened to me about 10 years ago. And I was asked to be quiet. Don’t ruin the persons life by bringing it up. I just have to deal with it.? Now it consumes me, my thoughts. But my mouth is shut tight. But I am as screwed up as ever.

    Comment by Melinda — February 26, 2023 @ 6:02 PM

  37. I was sexually abused by a family member when I was 7-10 multiple times by the same person Ive been holding it in my whole life smoking cannibas gambling anything to escape the thoughts but over the past 2 weeks especially I feel depressed angry all the time struggle to eat don’t get along with anybody having problems with my current relationship sometimes I feel like the only way to get out of this is hurting my abuser or just ending my life running out of option i don’t know what to do if talking to somebody will help me how to fix my problems

    Comment by Reece — April 25, 2023 @ 2:14 PM

  38. I was sexually abused at age 9 by my older brother 5 years older than me. It started with him asking me a couple times if I had my period to him asking me to come to the bathroom because he needed help with a school project. After several times of trusting my gut saying no I wanted him to stop so I gave in, which led me to carrying shame my whole life. I endured more verbal and emotional abuse all these years later since then. This trauma stirred up since I became a mom to my daughter and had awful post partum and dealing with a fiancé who had addiction problems mainly alcohol that lead to domestic abuse trauma. The ripple effect this trauma has on our life is shocking but makes sense and this article helped make better sense of this. I am 38 year old now and have tried EDMR therapy but I clearly need more specialized trauma treatment so this doesn’t affect my daughter so I can be the best version of me for her and best mother I can be.

    Comment by Laura — May 27, 2023 @ 9:10 PM

  39. My honest truth
    From kindergarten all the way up to 7th grade I was sexually abused by an older family member now that I’m 21 I’m starting to learn my feelings and thoughts are becoming harder to control. I push away everyone I love in fear of abandonment I struggle with major anxiety and depression which at times I hide from myself I’m not sure what else to say besides I need help understanding the past

    Comment by Kenzie miller — June 10, 2023 @ 3:09 PM

  40. I was sexually abused as a very young child by my grandfather and other men also physical abuse by my father i have blocked out most of it but flashes come back to haunt me and I am having such a difficulty time with anxiety trust issues and severe depression at times I have never told my mother I honestly don’t think it would have made a difference I just wish I could’ve gotten help

    Comment by Michelle — July 20, 2023 @ 3:19 PM

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