NIH funding to support UIC study of rape victims’ support, recovery outcomes

Rape is a major public health issue affecting an estimated 20% of American women in their lifetimes and costing billions of dollars each year due to harmful outcomes — like problem drinking, depression or poor physical health — associated with these experiences, according to previous research on the matter.

While interventions typically focus on improving positive support, negative social reactions such as victim-blaming are commonly experienced by rape victims following disclosure and have damaging mental and physical health effects.

Sarah Ullman, UIC professor of criminology, law, and justice
Sarah Ullman, UIC professor of criminology, law, and justice

With the help of a three-year, $894,400 grant from the National Institutes of Health, University of Illinois Chicago social psychologist Sarah Ullman will lead a study that aims to better understand how support processes from social networks impact victims’ adjustment, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, drinking, and relationship quality.

“Few studies of support pairs, such as a victim and a social network member, exist in the clinical research literature, so little is known about the dynamics of victims’ disclosures to support providers,” said Ullman, UIC professor of criminology, law, and justice. “The proposed study will fill this gap by examining support processes from both victims’ and support providers’ perspectives in relation to adjustment of both parties.”

The researchers will collect survey and interview data from Chicago metropolitan area women and will provide important information for developing social support interventions that improve the functioning of both victims and informal supporters, such as friends, family, or intimate partners, to whom most victims disclose sexual assault.

Victims of alcohol-related rapes also will be studied to determine if they are unique in terms of how support processes relate to their adjustment.

Information gathered from the study will help inform and serve as the basis for developing support network interventions for rape victims and their informal support providers.

“Ultimately, we hope to improve support for rape victims by reducing the related negative post-disclosure adjustments they experience, lowering secondary traumatic stress for support providers; and improving relationships between victims and informal support network members,” said Ullman, who is also a faculty fellow in the UIC School of Public Health’s Institute for Research on Health Policy.

Other researchers involved with the study are George Karabatsos, UIC professor of educational psychology in the College of Education, and Barbara McCrady, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

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