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Sexual Assault

Learn how to get help from the traumatic effects of sexual violence, including substance use.

Sexual violence affects hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Its survivors can be of any age, sexual orientation, gender, race, and background. And no matter who experiences it, sexual assault can have a lasting traumatic impact. 

After experiencing sexual violence, survivors may experience emotionally or physically painful effects. This trauma can make it difficult to feel normal, even after returning to their daily routines.

Some people may turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope with physical or emotional pain. But substance use can lead to many negative consequences. The chances of misusing drugs and alcohol can increase if a survivor has no other means to deal with the lasting effects of the trauma.

No matter what you may be going through, know that support is available to help you recover from the effects of sexual assault, including problems with drugs or alcohol.

With support and treatment, survivors can and do heal over time. 

Potential mental health effects

Sexual assault can take a toll on mental health; in fact, symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common among survivors. With the right support, survivors can begin to heal and move forward. Find out more about these impacts: 

Depression. Depression is a mood disorder that occurs when feelings of sadness and hopelessness continue for long periods of time and interrupt regular thought patterns.

Flashbacks. When memories of a trauma feel as if they are taking place in the present, it’s possible to feel as if the experience of sexual violence is happening all over again.

PTSD. This disorder causes extreme feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, and a sense of being constantly in danger, making it difficult to function in everyday life. PTSD often involves flashbacks or nightmares that make the surivior feel as though they are re-living their experience with sexual violence. 

Hear stories that you can relate to. 


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Substance misuse as a coping mechanism

Learning how to cope with the emotional and psychological aspects of sexual violence is very important. Seeking out support, learning how to calm and recenter oneself at moments when emotions are intense, and seeking out medication to help with anxiety or depression symptoms are all healthy coping strategies.

It is not uncommon for sexual assault survivors to turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope with emotional trauma, “numb” their pain, or avoid opening up about their trauma to friends or family. The relief from using these substances doesn’t last long, and when drug or alcohol use becomes a habit, it can cause further harm to a person's physical and mental health.

It may not be obvious when drinking or drug use has become an issue, and it can be even more challenging to recognize these patterns in yourself. Knowing and recognizing the warning signs of a substance use problem can reduce the likelihood of becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol.

Support for recovery

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, it is important to take care of both your physical and emotional health. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery, so it’s important to understand all your options and consider what will work best for you.

Self-care after trauma can help survivors cope with lingering effects. Managing your emotions through daily exercises such as meditation, mindfulness, breath work, and yoga can help relieve stress and reinforce feelings of self-worth. 

Opening up to a trusted family member or friend can help survivors process the experience. Having a confidant also makes it easier to begin the healing process. The person you open up to must be able to extend true support, which means not blaming the survivor.  It is very important for the survivor to be able to share all their vulnerable feelings and receive a non-judgmental, supportive response.

Therapy can provide ways to work through fear and stress following sexual assault and also to gain tools for handling the other reactions to trauma, including substance use.

Trauma and substance use problems that sexual assault survivors may experience are treatable. Remember, help is available. Reaching out for support is a sign of strength and the first step in the recovery process. 



RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, offers free, confidential support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Call 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673) or chat online to speak with someone right away. RAINN also maintains a directory of local sexual assault service providers so you can find help in your area.

National Domestic Violence Hotline

24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic violence so they can live their lives free of abuse. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233), chat online, or text "START" to 88788.


The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides leadership in preventing and responding to sexual violence. It has strong partnerships with state, territorial, and tribal anti-sexual assault coalitions and national allied organizations. This online directory highlights those organizations and projects working to eliminate sexual violence.

Find Support to Overcome Substance Use

This resource was produced collaboratively with a group of Education Development Center (EDC) subject matter experts who reviewed the content and provided their insights. Last reviewed February 2023.