Harris finding sheds light on victims’ pain and strength

The Rolf Harris trial has raised public understanding of the trauma of the victims.

The recent public trial and conviction of Rolf Harris on charges of child sexual abuse, as well as the Australian royal commission into child abuse, bring the issue of sexually abused children to the forefront of public awareness.

The trial and royal commission raise public understanding of the nature and impact of child abuse.

They have the potential to reduce the sense of stigma and shame that can add to the burden of survivors and may also begin the process of redressing the wrongs of the past.

The fact hidden traumas are brought to light and there is public acknowledgment the fault does not lie with those who have been abused but with perpetrators, may make it easier for those who have experienced abuse to speak out.

It may also prompt those around them, such as friends, family, teachers or health professionals to be aware, listen and respond.

While public hearings are focused on past abuse, they should also alert us all to be more aware of abuse that may be occurring now or in the future.

In this way, we can help survivors to speak up and encourage those around them to notice and protect them.

Our understanding of the impact of major stressful life events on mental health and wellbeing has increased substantially.

We have learnt people are resilient and can adapt to extreme circumstances.

Often we marvel, for example, at survivors who have demonstrated great resilience in the face of major trauma.

We have also learnt, however, responses vary greatly and that, for some people, such events can have significant effects on mental health and well being, as well as on daily functioning at home, school or work.

Those who have been exposed to physical and sexual abuse, particularly childhood abuse, are at greater risk of harm to their health and wellbeing.

We should applaud those who courageously speak out.

For those who participate, experience tells us that the impact is complicated and mixed.

Public acknowledgment of the guilt and accountability of perpetrators has the potential to be important in providing validation for survivors and going some way to facilitating healing and recovery.

However, it is also a painful process.

Of course, the protection and support offered by a royal commission is different to addressing these issues in an adversarial legal system where the survivors themselves can feel put on trial.

For those not directly participating in the royal commission, exposure to media coverage can similarly offer a mixed experience of validation, vindication and painful reminders.

It is critical the increased awareness achieved by these public hearings is matched by the provision of assistance and support.

We have treatments that work for those suffering from the mental health effects of childhood sexual and physical abuse.

However, the challenge is to get this best practice out to the broad range of health and mental health practitioners across the country.

Hopefully, high-profile public awareness can increase confidence in speaking up and also prompt health professionals to be more alert to signs and symptoms.

Those who are struggling to come to terms with the effects of childhood abuse, and not receiving care, should talk to their GP.

Other services that can provide support include: Lifeline (13 11 14 for confidential 24-hour counselling and referrals); Kids Help Line (1800 55 1800 or visit www.kidshelp.com.au); National sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line: (1800 737 732); MensLine (1300 789 978) or Sexual Assault Crisis Line (1800 806 292). Professor David Forbes is the director of the Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne.