Sexual harassment can hurt your mental health in lots of ways:
- It can make you afraid to go to work.
- It can make you tense or jumpy or anxious, worrying about what will happen next.
- It can affect your sleep, appetite, or ability to enjoy other activities.
- It can take up a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it stop.
- It can distract you from your work or other priorities. That can make you worry about your performance on the job or other responsibilities.
- It can make you irritable and short-tempered, which can cause problems in your relationships.
- It can make it harder to feel connected to loved ones or feel understood by others.
One of the biggest ways harassment can harm your mental health is how it can make you (incorrectly!) blame yourself for being harassed.
It’s really common for people to blame themselves. It’s really common for them to feel shame and guilt. Or to feel like it’s proof that they’re a bad person.
This can lead to serious mental health issues.
So we want to say to you very clearly: This is not your fault. Really try to understand and believe that, because it’s important for your mental well-being.
You’re going to be making some decisions about how to handle the harassment, and we want you to understand how those decisions may affect your mental health, as well.
How staying at work may affect your mental health
Many people, when they’re harassed at work, decide to stay in their job and try to cope. Here is what that can look like.
Often, people don’t tell anybody they’re being harassed, except maybe a close friend or family member. They might quietly take steps to try to keep themself safe. Maybe they talk directly to the harasser to try to make them stop. Maybe they join a whisper network. Maybe they try to just put their head down and focus on their work.
This can work okay. But your body and mind are going to need reassurance that you have removed the threat before they can start to feel safer and less stressed. This is very difficult to do if you were sexually harassed at work and continue to return there.
Also, if the harassment continues, it will go on hurting your sense of safety and well-being. That means more stress on top of other life stressors you might be already experiencing. This can start feeling unsustainable.
Even if the harassment stops, returning to the space where you were harassed can bring up uncomfortable feelings. This is especially true if the harassment took place over a long period of time or was severe.
The result is that many people who stay at work end up feeling burned out.
For some people staying at work turns out fine. But if that’s what you choose to do, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your mental health to make sure that, if you start to show signs of trauma or burnout, you recognize it and find ways to get the support you need.
Later in this article we’ll tell you some things to look out for. Please try to monitor the state of your mental health. It’s important. Your mental health is worth protecting.
How quitting your job may affect your mental health
Quitting your job might not make sense for you for financial reasons or career reasons. It’s also totally unfair. Why should you have to quit because someone decided to harass you?
But leaving an unsafe situation can be a really good way to protect your mental health, especially if it doesn’t seem like the harassment will end. That doesn’t mean it makes sense for everyone. But if you can quit, it’s worth considering.
If you do quit, you might think that all the stress the harassment is causing you will immediately disappear. But that’s not really what happens. Even after the original source of the stress is gone, its effects can take a longer time to go away.
It’s important to know that leaving your job may also lead you to other stressful situations, like unemployment, underemployment, taking a demotion, or taking a job somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise choose to work. All of these situations can bring their own challenges and lead to you questioning your decision to change jobs.
Still, it’s often best for your mental health to get yourself out of an unsafe environment. It’s only once we’re in a safe space that we can really start to recover from what we’ve gone through. For more about quitting your job, see How to decide whether to quit your job—and how to make that work.
How reporting may affect your mental health
If you have a great employer and supportive co-workers, it’s possible that reporting might go well for you. But unfortunately for many people, the experience of reporting sexual harassment to their employer can be really, really bad for their mental health.
It adds a layer of trauma or distress on top of the pain you already experienced from the sexual harassment.
One thing that’s really common when you report sexual harassment is that people react by sympathizing with the harasser. They may assume you’re exaggerating, misunderstanding, or even lying about what happened.
This happens because it can be easier for people to believe that someone is lying or exaggerating than having to acknowledge that something awful—like sexual harassment—is happening. This isn’t right or fair to you, but is sadly a common bias of many people like employers, supervisors, and co-workers.
Reporting is completely your choice. If you want to report, we support you. But we want you to know about the possible unfair consequences, and how they can make things harder for your mental and physical health. We want you to be prepared.
So here’s what you need to know.
If you report, people at work may treat you coldly, gossip about you, or judge you. They may sympathize with the harasser or believe you’re exaggerating, misunderstanding, or even lying about what happened. Your boss may avoid you, or be stiff or formal with you. They may reduce your hours, make changes to your job that you don’t want or need, or stop treating you well. The harasser may try to sabotage your ability to do your job or try to turn others against you.
If you get involved with a legal process, that can be even more traumatizing.
You may have to describe your experience over and over again, including with people who you don’t know. People in positions of authority may act like they don’t believe you, or like what happened to you was no big deal. It is sadly far too common to not get the outcome you’re seeking, and that can leave you feeling betrayed. Like the system that’s supposed to protect you has completely let you down.
None of this is fair. All of this can be bad for your mental health. It can increase your likelihood of developing PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Reporting still might be the right decision for you. But we want you to understand the risks involved so you can prepare for them.
How not reporting may affect your mental health
Some people make the choice to not report sexual harassment out of fear for their safety or well-being, or because of the possible consequences for their career or other aspects of their life.
But not reporting carries some risks, too.
If you decide not to report, you may feel judged by people who want or expect you to make a report. You may feel pressured to speak up when you don’t feel it is safe or what’s best for you. You may feel guilty, not only for yourself but for others who have experienced sexual harassment in the past or could potentially experience it in the future.
Sometimes people say or imply that choosing to not report means you are disappointing or betraying your gender, your race, your sexuality, or other groups that you are a part of. This can lead to feelings of embarrassment, shame, not belonging, self-blame, or guilt. It can also leave you feeling misunderstood and alone.
We want to be clear: No one other than you can or should make this choice for you.
You are not responsible for shouldering the burden of reporting what happened. If the person who harassed you goes on to harass other people in the future, that is entirely the fault of the person who is doing the harassment.
We encourage you to prioritize what is best for you. Whether or not to report is a completely personal decision, and one that you have every right to make for yourself.
If possible, it can be helpful to talk to other people who understand you and who won’t put pressure on you, and who respect that this is your choice.
How to tell if your mental health is suffering
Everybody reacts differently to stress, and so there are many signs that can mean your mental health is suffering. Here are some that may help you recognize if that’s happening to you:
- You’re feeling lonely and vulnerable.
- You’re more irritable and short-tempered than usual.
- You’re blaming yourself, feeling like you’re a bad person, feeling guilt or shame.
- You’re exhausted.
- You’re sleeping more, or less, than you normally do.
- You’re eating more, or less, than you normally do.
- You’re drinking more alcohol, or using more drugs, than you normally do.
- You’re finding yourself withdrawing from your friends and family.
- You’re scared to be alone.
- You aren’t enjoying things you used to find pleasurable.
- You’re having headaches, muscle pain, nausea, gastrointestinal problems or other physical symptoms of stress.
- You’re feeling a desire to self-harm.
- You’re thinking about ending your life.
- You’re feeling hopeless about the future
If at any point you’re wondering if dying would somehow be a resolution to all the suffering you’re going through, it is very important to seek help. Please call a helpline, talk to your family doctor, or go to your nearest hospital. Try to remember that how you are feeling right now will change. The most important thing is for you to stay safe long enough to give yourself the time to start feeling better. Helplines, hospitals, and other professionals—along with family, friends, and other loved ones—can help support you until that happens.
- Why we blame ourselves and what can help
- Shock, confusion, and disbelief: Why we feel them and what can help
- Fear, worry, and anxiety: Why we feel them and what can help
- Anger: Why we feel it and what can help
- Depression and sadness: Why we feel them and what can help
- Grief and loss: Why we feel them and what can help
- 20 ways to take care of your mental health
- How to make sense of what happened to you: Understanding the trauma of sexual harassment
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