‘Prolonged exposure’ therapy helps young victims of rape, Penn study finds

    More than a decade ago, University of Pennsylvania researcher Edna Foa developed a therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. “Prolonged exposure therapy” involves recounting the trauma.

    Now, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows the treatment’s effectiveness among teenage rape victims.

    Initially, some mental health professionals worried the teens might not be able to handle revisiting memories of traumatic experiences.


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    Indeed, according to Dr. Steven Berkowitz, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Penn, the treatment is often hard for adults.

    “The individual is asked to recall the traumatic event or events, and to rehearse them and to learn through processing and techniques such as relaxation and others to master their emotional responses to the event,” said Berkowitz, director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery.

    “You’re really forced in a way to review the traumatic event and learn to cope with it,” he added

    Women Organized against Rape partnered with Penn’s Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders for the trial in which 30 teens received supportive counseling while another 30 had prolonged exposure therapy.

    Prolonged exposure was more effective, according to Carole Johnson, WOAR director.

    “We use PE as our primary counseling modality and we’ve been using it for a long time. Every counselor who comes into WOAR, does go through the training provided by the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders,” said Johnson.

    “The key part of it is mastery, really going through the experience and being able to deal with the emotional aspects of it, the ones people are typically so afraid of,” said Berkowitz.

    “So it’s not that we’re asking people to forget about it, they don’t. We’re asking them to integrate it, without the emotional responses they [normally] have, [the] anxiety the fear,” he said.

    Prolonged exposure therapy has been used for adult victims of sexual assault and veterans, among others.

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