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The association between sexual abuse, mental health and behavioural problems in people with learning disabilities has not previously been examined in a controlled study.
To identify symptoms of psychological disturbance in adults with and without a confirmed history of sexual abuse.
The study used a matched (1:1) case–control design comparing 54 adults who had experienced sexual abuse with 54 adults with no reported history of abuse. The two groups were selected from a community population of adults with learning disabilities living in residential care, and compared for selected psychiatric diagnoses and for scores on measures of disturbed behaviour.
Sexual abuse was associated with increased rates of mental illness and behavioural problems, and with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Psychological reactions to abuse were similar to those observed in the general population, but with the addition of stereotypical behaviour. The more serious the abuse, the more severe the symptoms that were reported.
The study provides the first evidence from a controlled study that sexual abuse is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric and behavioural disorder in people with learning disabilities.
There are few publications concerning the psychological reactions of people with learning disabilities to sexual abuse. Most significantly, there are no controlled studies and few which demonstrate a systematic approach to documenting the sequelae of trauma.
To critically review the published research in this field.
A literature search in peer-reviewed psychiatry, psychology nursing and social care journals for the years 1974 to 2001 was conducted and 25 studies were reviewed.
Several studies suggest that, following sexual abuse, people with learning disabilities may experience a range of psychopathology similar to that experienced by adults and children in the general population. However, because of methodological limitations, these results are not conclusive.
Whether people with learning disabilities experience reactions to sexual abuse similar to the general population has yet to be explored by systematic research.
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