The NHS is raising awareness of sexual abuse and violence in the hope of reducing it and also to provide much needed support to the victims, writes Hong Tan

Recent coverage of high profile child sexual abuse cases in the media such as in Saville, Rotherham, Oxford and Lambeth have built greater awareness of the scale of “hidden” abuse in this country. However, the associated health needs of those affected are often less well reported.  

A recent police report showed a 20 per cent increase in the reporting of sexual offences in 2014 compared with 2013

Sexual abuse and violence can impact on a person’s ability to have healthy relationships and, for some, on their ability to function in society. When a child has been a victim of sexual abuse it is often overlooked as an underlying trauma leading to other health problems such as eating disorders, self harm and depression.

These are to some extent “coping mechanisms” in an attempt to try and deal with the original trauma.

A recent police report showed a 20 per cent increase in the reporting of sexual offences in 2014 compared with 2013 and with more people coming forward there’s a real need to ensure that they receive the right care.

The tale of the survivors

We know people need a wide range of support from short to longer term due to the traumatic impact of sexual abuse. Survivors of sexual assault have endured frightening, invalidating and degrading experiences. They need safe, specialist spaces and empathic professionals trained to give the support and understanding necessary to help them meet the challenges and difficulties they are experiencing.

It is believed only 20 per cent of all survivors go to a SARC, the remainder present either to traditional NHS services, specialist voluntary sector organisations or live in silence

NHS England is currently working with partners to set out the strategic direction for these services, better supporting the needs of around 470,000 people every year.

Since April 2013, we have been working with Police and Crime Commissioners of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) and sexual assault services to provide survivors of sexual abuse with 24/7 access to crisis support, clinical and forensic care, therapeutic support and safeguarding care in a secure and age appropriate environment.

Survivors report the positive impact of being heard, believed and understood by professionals in specialist services, including sexual assault services in the third sector, who have the skills to work with the trauma of sexual assault and child sexual abuse.

NHS England’s Five Year Forward View prioritised investment in SARCs and there are now 43 SARCs that provide care, treatment, forensic medical examinations and advocacy support to people who have been sexually abused.

Despite this, it is believed only 20 per cent of all survivors go to a SARC, the remainder present either to traditional NHS services, specialist voluntary sector organisations or live in silence. We will continue to work to ensure that all victims receive the right care whenever and wherever it is needed.

In order to raise awareness of sexual abuse and sexual violence and to coincide with the national “It’s not OK” awareness week from 6 February, NHS England commissioned “Survivor Voices”, a video which aims to break the silence on living with the impact of child sexual abuse in the family environment. This aims to improve commissioning of appropriate services and will be launched during this week.

Hong Tan is the national lead for SARCs and Partnership Working for NHS England and lead commissioner for the three SARCs in London for over 10 years. He has over 25 years’ experience working in health and social care commissioning.