Health services failing male victims of child sexual abuse, says industry leader
Craig Hughes-Cashmore, guest speaker at the newly established National Men’s Lived Experience of Suicide Network, says mental health services are under-equipped to identify and deal with male victims of child sexual abuse who are at risk of suicide.
One in six men are victims of childhood sexual abuse, he said. “Most men wait considerably longer than women to disclose (their childhood experiences). The average time is 25 years before they tell their history.”
Hughes-Cashmore set up Survivors and Mates Support Network [SAMSN] 12 years ago to help deal with his own experience of child sexual abuse, which resulted in years of trauma, several suicide attempts and ongoing suicidality.
“I’m now 55 and it’s been 15 years since I had to deal with ongoing suicidality morning and night. A huge leap forward for me,” he said.
A key factor in his improved mental health was to meet other male survivors of child sexual abuse, which led to setting up the first specialist support service in NSW for survivors, SAMSN. He ran support groups from his home in the early days and raised money selling chocolates and holding poker nights to help pay for professional expertise.
“I was able to sue the state education department and one of my perpetrators had money,” he said. He quit his job and invested everything he had into building SAMSN.
The organisation now employs 12 staff and receives state and federal funding to run eight-week group sessions for male survivors, monthly meetings and day-long workshops. SAMSN has represented 600 men and there is a 200-waitlist to participate in the longer group sessions. Another key focus has been to upskill people who come in contact with male survivors in their workplace.
In 2022, SAMSN ran a pilot program called ‘Talk with a mate who can relate’, to give guys an opportunity to meet with a survivor of child sexual abuse who had received training around suicide and suicidality. There has been huge demand for the service, which will continue now that SAMSN has funding to keep it going.
The Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, announced in 2012 by Labor PM Julia Gillard, changed the landscape said Hughes-Cashmore. “That blew everything up and provided a whole lot of opportunities because no one was doing this work.”
He said SAMSN evolved according to demand.
“Everything we do has come from the guys,” he said. “We wanted to create a safe space.”
With men remaining silent about their experiences, SAMSN asked guys in their 20s to help with messaging and also conducted workshops with Indigenous men, asking them, ‘how can we better engage with your mob?’”
“It’s about listening to people’s needs.”
Hughes-Cashmore said past longitudinal studies had shown that both men and women survivors of child sexual abuse were at 10 x the risk of suicidality. “We are over-represented and hidden in the suicide stats,” he said.
“The idea that all men are potential perpetrators but are never victims is absurd."
“It’s a very gendered issues. Domestic violence in women and the number of women that get murdered is appalling and more needs to be done, I would not want to take a dollar from effective services. Equally we are losing more survivors in real terms to suicide, both male and female. There is no national outrage about that, it is puzzling to me.”
Hugh-Cashmore expressed relief that there had been a change in Government, with a greater commitment following the Royal Commission to educate people and provide support. “ I hope we can scale up and build, to be truly national,” he said.
SAMSN is the only specialist support service for male survivors in Australia, and all of its services are available in NSW with additional new funding to provide support in Tasmania and South Australia.
“Child abuse is huge, the impacts are enormous. Whether it’s neglect, whether it’s physical, whether it is coupled with sexual or mental … we all know this.”
Hughes-Cashmore said major mental health organisations did not mention child sexual abuse, and the general approach was to “patch people up.”
“Guys come to their knees often because of a marriage break up or job loss,” he said.
“If that is undercut by accumulative trauma going back to your childhood, you’re not going to have the resilience and potentially you are not going to seek help.
“I tried to seek help after being abused for years by a friend of the family. I went to a schoolteacher. He was an opportunistic paedophile and he started abusing me. You can see why people don’t ask for help.”
“People who run these services need to understand so they can take disclosures in any way they are presented. There are different signs and different languages.
“The most common thing I’ve heard in 10 years when I am talking to people is, ‘You get it.’ It’s beautiful. You are trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense, on your own. To be with someone who understands is an amazing relief.”