Sexual assault referral centres have been established to provide an integrated service that includes forensic examination, health interventions and emotional support. However, it is unclear how the mental health and substance use needs are being addressed.
To identify what works for whom under what circumstances for people with mental health or substance use issues who attend sexual assault referral centres.
Setting and sample
Staff and adult survivors in English sexual assault referral centres and partner agency staff.
A mixed-method multistage study using realist methodology comprising five work packages. This consisted of a systematic review and realist synthesis (work package 1); a national audit of sexual assault referral centres (work package 2); a cross-sectional prevalence study of mental health and drug and alcohol needs (work package 3); case studies in six sexual assault referral centre settings (work package 4), partner agencies and survivors; and secondary data analysis of outcomes of therapy for sexual assault survivors (work package 5).
There is a paucity of evidence identified in the review to support specific ways of addressing mental health and substance use. There is limited mental health expertise in sexual assault referral centres and limited use of screening tools based on the audit. In the prevalence study, participants (n = 78) reported high levels of psychological distress one to six weeks after sexual assault referral centre attendance (94% of people had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder). From work package 4 qualitative analysis, survivors identified how trauma-informed care potentially reduced risk of re-traumatisation. Sexual assault referral centre staff found having someone with mental health expertise in the team helpful not only in helping plan onward referrals but also in supporting staff. Both sexual assault referral centre staff and survivors highlighted challenges in onward referral, particularly to NHS mental health care, including gaps in provision and long waiting times. Work package 5 analysis demonstrated that people with recorded sexual assault had higher levels of baseline psychological distress and received more therapy but their average change scores at end point were similar to those without sexual trauma.
The study was adversely affected by the pandemic. The data were collected during successive lockdowns when services were not operating as usual, as well as the overlay of anxiety and isolation due to the pandemic.
People who attend sexual assault centres have significant mental health and substance use needs. However, sexual assault referral centres vary in how they address these issues. Access to follow-up support from mental health services needs to be improved (especially for those deemed to have ‘complex’ needs) and there is some indication that co-located psychological therapies provision improves the survivor experience. Routine data analysis demonstrated that those with sexual assault can benefit from therapy but require more intensity than those without sexual assault.
Further research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of providing co-located psychological therapy in the sexual assault referral centres, as well as evaluating the long-term needs and outcomes of people who attend these centres.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Health and Social Care Delivery Research programme (16/117/03) and is published in full in Health and Social Care Delivery Research; Vol. 11, No. 21.
This trial is registered as PROSPERO 2018 CRD42018119706 and ISRCTN 18208347.