Alliance and Suicide Prevention Lab

Graduate Students

Undergraduate Honors Thesis Projects

The Association between Sexual Harassment and Suicidality Among College Women

By Renee Brown-Hangartner, M.A.

A Masters Thesis Defended in 2015

Project Overview

The prevalence of sexual harassment among college women has been reported to range from 33% to 97% (Klein, Apple, & Khan, 2011; Yoon, Funk, & Kropf, 2010) across the lifespan. In any one year of college, the prevalence of sexual harassment reported by women ranges from 33% to 57% (Crown & Roberts, 2007; Huerta, Cortina, Pang, Torges, & Magley, 2006). The severity and frequency of sexual harassment has been found to be related to reports of psychological distress (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012), feelings of shame (Yoon et al., 2010), anxiety and depression symptoms (Murdoch, Pryor, Polusny, & Gackstetter, 2007), and social isolation (Pershing, 2003). These consequences of sexual harassment are concerning given the association between depression, isolation, and suicidality (Boardman, Grimbaldeston, Handley, Jones, & Willmott, 1999; DeWall, Gilman, Sharif, Carboni, & Rice, 2012). While there are numerous studies documenting the negative consequences experienced by women who are sexually harassed, little is known about the relationship of sexual harassment to the more severe negative outcomes of suicidal ideation and self-harm behaviors and what variables might facilitate this hypothesized relationship. Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore whether the experience of sexual harassment is related to increased suicidality and if this hypothesized relationship is mediated or moderated by other factors such as an individual's response style and/or degree of connection to or isolation from others.

The study provided support for several of the hypotheses. Greater reports of objective sexual harassment were associated with a number of suicide-related behaviors and thoughts. College women who reported a greater number of sexual harassment experiences were more likely (small to medium effects) to report having experienced suicidal ideation, engaging in NSSI, and making suicide attempts, while in college. The relationship between sexual harassment and thwarted belongingness was fully mediated by isolation. This is the first known study to explore sexual harassment concurrently with thwarted belongingness. Mediation analyses provided support for indirect relationships between isolation and some of the suicidality variables through thwarted belongingness, but this was not found for all of the suicide related variables. Somewhat consistent with initial hypotheses, the mediation analyses concerning the relationship between isolation, thwarted belongingness, and suicide attempts detected a significant indirect only mediation relationship. The relationship between isolation and suicidal ideation was mediated by thwarted belongingness. Mediation analyses did not provide support for an indirect relationship between isolation and NSSI through thwarted belongingness. The hypothesis that the interaction between avoidant response style and sexual harassment would account for variance in isolation was not supported.