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

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