Sexual Assault in School, Mental Health and Suicidal Behaviors in Adolescent Women in Canada

Article excerpt

There is a considerable literature on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, colleges, and universities, but the literature in high schools in North America is slight. Since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1992 established that sexually harassed students could sue school boards, the literature has increased considerably, most of which is addressed to school principals concerning methods to educate and deter those who engage in such harassment (e.g., Wickum, 1992; Bryant, 1993; Strauss, 1994; First & Curcio, 1994; Cooper, 1994).

The data base on the amount of sexual harassment experienced by female high school students and the potential impact of such harassment on personal adjustment is not well established. The study reported here appears to be one of the first to employ mental health measures to assess this potential impact.

METHOD

A stratified random sample of public and separate (Catholic) schools was drawn so as to represent urban, small town, and rural areas of the province of Alberta. A condition of access was that no type of school board or school district would be identified in reporting of data. The questionnaire was completed in 1993 by 2,118 male and female students in grades 7 through 12. The major focus of the questionnaire was use of alcohol and drugs, but a range of self-completion questions on school life and personal adjustment were also asked.

The questions on sexual assault and harassment in school established three types of assault: indecent exposure; physical (unwanted sexual touching through to rape); and other (mostly verbal harassment, but also including some more serious sexual assaults (see Table 1). The questions were: "While at school (inside or outside or in a school bus) has someone: exposed themselves to you?; Touched the private parts of your body when you didn't want them to do it?; Done something else you didn't want them to (please specify)?" The response categories were "often," "a few times," "once," "never."

The measures of adjustment are those developed in the Ontario Child Health Study (Sanford, Offord, Boyle, & Peace, 1992). These self-completion measures have established reliability and validity in terms of known psychiatric categories (Boyle, Offord, Racine, & Sanford, 1993). They have established population parameters for emotional disorder (depression and anxiety) and suicidal ideas and behavior (Links, Boyle, & Offord, 1989; Joffe, Offord, & Boyle, 1988). The "clinical profile" for emotional disorder in Table 2 is based on norms established in the Ontario Child Health Study.

TABLE 1: FREQUENCY OF TYPES OF SEXUAL ASSAULT EXPERIENCED BY 1,025
FEMALE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS IN GRADES 7 THROUGH 12

Type of assault             Often     A few times     Once
Never

Someone exposed selves       2.0%         10.4%       10.2%
77.4%

Someone touched private
parts                        3.7%          8.2%        7.7%
80.4%

Verbal and/or other
assault or harassment        4.1%          6.4%        3.6%
85.9%

The measure of suicidal actions (in the previous six months) is based on the question in the Offord scale which invites the responses "never," "sometimes," or "often" to the statement: "I deliberately try to hurt or kill myself." The frequency of "often," for both the emotional disorder items and the harassment/assault items (presented in Table 2) was not specified in the questionnaire. The mental health questionnaire specified the past six months as the period to be reviewed. No specific period was specified for sexual assaults occurring in school (or on a school bus).

RESULTS

Since trends and correlates across the age categories were fairly similar, we have aggregated data into a single age category including 1,025 females. Mental health correlates of the three types of assault/harassment in terms of clinical profiles on the measure of emotional disorder (depression and anxiety) and those engaging "often" in deliberate self-harm, are presented separately, although there is a statistical overlap among the three types of harassment. …