Updated on 3/8/2023

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to open a dialogue and educate the community about sexual assault. This blog discusses the way traumatic events, such as sexual assault, can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or drug use. It also discusses the psychological effects of sexual assault including anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month: How it Relates to Substance Use

Sexual assault is a serious matter and can be difficult to talk about. The fact of the matter is, one in three women in the United States has experienced a form of sexual assault. For some, the traumatic experience can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or substance abuse. To create awareness and dispel myths and assumptions surrounding sexual assault, April is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During the month, an open dialogue occurs to educate the community about the effects of sexual assault and preventing it.

Defining Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is defined as rape, molestation, unwanted sexual touching or any unwanted, non-consensual sexual exposure, regardless of the victim’s mental capacity. An attacker can use physical force, threats, alcohol or drugs as a tool to assault you. Even non-contact events like being flashed or coerced to look at sexual content are sexual assault. 

Important note: Sexual assault is not your fault.

Psychological Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault changes your life. You can experience feelings of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or use substances to help “escape” your memories. The psychological impact of sexual assault can take a toll on your well-being. Your mental health is essential to your recovery. The signs of a mental health issue can show up in several different ways. Below is a guide to understanding depression, anxiety, panic disorder and PTSD. 


Depression is a feeling of hopelessness, sadness or emptiness that exists almost every day for at least two or more weeks. Some signs of depression are:

  • Feeling pessimistic
  • Feeling ashamed, guilt, helpless or worthless
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • A decrease in energy or frequently feeling tired
  • Trouble concentrating, brain fog or indecisiveness
  • The need to keep moving; restlessness
  • The inability to sleep, waking up early or excessive sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Suicidal ideations

Depression can occur even if you don’t have every symptom.  


Anxiety is not uncommon. However, an anxiety disorder occurs over a prolonged period and can become worse as time goes by. There are different types of anxiety.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder If you experience excessive anxiety or worry for six months or more, you can have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Some signs are:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog the inability to concentrate or remember
  • Muscle tension
  • Inability to control feelings of worry
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Sleep problems

Panic disorder Panic attacks frequently occur for those who have panic disorder. These attacks can begin without warning. Panic attacks are often caused by a fear of a place, object or surroundings. Signs of a panic attack include:

  • An accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Inability to stop shaking
  • Shortness of breath or feeling you are choking
  • Thinking you have no control
  • Expecting the worst to happen

PTSD PTSD often develops soon after a traumatic event. Those with PTSD can experience:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Daunting thoughts

Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

Coping with the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault can seem impossible. You can feel lost, confused or abandoned. The overwhelming feelings can, at times, seem to take over everything. Sexual assault is traumatic, and as a result, you may have numbed yourself or hid your feelings with substances. Instead, seeking therapy to learn healthy coping skills is the ideal way to move forward and take back your life.

Mental health or substance addiction treatment in a safe, private setting can help you focus on your needs. Cliffside Malibu understands you are going through a difficult time in your life. We offer you therapy with supportive staff dedicated to your unique needs. Our therapists guide you through your treatment, teaching you coping skills you can use after leaving. 

Understanding the physical and psychological impact of sexual assault is essential to your well-being. Reach out to a mental health or substance addiction center if you need help processing what happened and overcoming addiction because of it. Cliffside Malibu supports your decision to find comfort and privacy while on your recovery journey. Located in beautiful Malibu, our center caters to your need for individual care and safety. To start your healing, call (855) 403-5641. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.