PENN State Scandal – A Mental Health View Point

The PENN State scandal sad to say is not the first, nor the last that we will hear of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse happens far too often. We here at Dr. Karen Ruskin & Associates are not alone counseling those struggling with the trauma of sexual abuse. There are many therapists who have clients who attend counseling reporting a sexual abuse history. There are clients who come in reporting that as an adult they find themselves thinking about, and their current relationships are affected by, their childhood sexual abuse experience. Then there are clients of who bring in their children who have shared with them their emotional anguish of having been sexually abused. Those are but just two of the varied scenarios that present themselves.

The most recent report of sexual abuse is what occurred at PENN State. With all the media attention it has gotten which often offers viewers the legal angle, has led me to decide that it is important to share the mental health angle. Last week I was contacted by 96.9 Boston Talks; The Doug Meehan Show to share my insights as their go-to expert. If you missed this informative interview you may click here to listen on demand. This week I have decided to put into writing several Talking Points in a question and answer form based on top questions I recognize the public wants to know the answers to. There is so much to share, and much can be added to even what I have written below, this blog is simply a start of a very important dialogue.

Note: I am not suggesting any of the talking points are about any one specific person who is involved in the Penn State Scandal in particular.  I am providing information from a psychotherapeutic educational perspective to help people to understand the varied key questions/points people have stemming from the Penn State Scandal. This case offers the opening to bring about analytical and thought felt discussions between people and for mental health experts such as myself to speak up and offer educational insights. I hope you find these points of use as you process the events.

Dr. Karen’s Talking Points on the Penn State Scandal and Sexual Abuse:

How does a person gets away with this?

Most pedophiles like sociopaths are so skilled at deception and manipulation that the victim either feels: a) threatened, b) confused, c) embarrassed, d) trapped with no way out, e) typically pedophiles will pray on those that are vulnerable, yes all children are vulnerable, with that though there are children that present as more vulnerable than others (e.g., lacking in family support) and the abuser like a lion can tell the difference between a mouse versus a cheetah and will certainly go for the mouse,  f) special, and more…  – therefore, the victim does not report it.

Many pedophiles are quite skilled at presenting a “dual-self”, that is 2 sides of self; the illness (pedophilia) in contrast to the great person that everyone loves. Therefore, no one suspects, or if suspects, chooses not to suspect the sickness within that is being acted upon. Most people if not all, will see the great person, not the beast that lives within. It is the victims that experience the beast within.

What should a parent teach their kids?

Educate your children at a very young age there are mentally ill people that will act inappropriately, verbally, physically, sexually. Explain what that looks like and be specific explaining if anyone ever touches your body or asks or tells you to touch their body that is unacceptable and invading your personal boundaries. (For very young children, along with the word description parents can also draw a picture of a bubble/circle with a stick figure of the child in the bubble, show another stick figure going into the bubble showing that is the child’s bubble, and that is never okay for another to go in their bubble). Discuss if that were to happen a clear ‘action plan’, such as; saying “no”, telling your child to tell the abuser that what they are doing is “not okay and stop”, running away, telling a parent, a teacher, a grown adult that they know and if that person does not listen and take action then tell someone else until someone listens.  Tell your children no matter what happens to them to please tell you and explain you will not be mad at them or disappointed in them, tell them that you love them and if someone ever does anything to them that is not okay it is absolutely not their fault and you want to know about it to help them.

Educate your children of some of the things an abuser may say, e.g., explain no matter what that person says, or threatens, even if they say; “I will kill you or hurt or kill someone you love if you tell”, tell your child to tell you no matter what they say.

Go over the facts above and the action plan and ask your child to repeat back to you what you have taught them, ask them what they just learned from your discussion. This may feel scary as a parent, and uncomfortable, and it will definitely feel uncomfortable for the child, but to be forewarned is to be armed with a safety plan to hopefully prevent this from happening to them. If it does happen it will not become a pattern as they will markedly be more likely to seek out help immediately since you had this discussion with them.

Why have some of the students of Penn, why would anyone act the way they are presenting? Specifically, rather than being mournful over the victims and the victims’ families, why would someone defend those that did not protect the victims?

Any one or combination of these:

Disbelief/denial. Explanation: Similar to the stages of grief when a person has lost someone that they love, the first stage a person goes through is denial. The reaction comes from denying their ‘intellectual mind’ and their ’emotional mind’ to process and think about the actuality of the actions that have taken place and not allowing themselves to process the role that educators play in the safety of children. If they were to allow themselves both intellectually and emotionally to enter the reality of the victims minds, that would be devastating to their psyche. This would force them to have to re-evaluate their reality, their reality of who they thought the person(s) they knew to be and how the person they knew should have behaved differently. This in turn forces self reflection and self evaluation of what one would do given similar circumstances, of which many a person does not want to consider.

Their reality. Explanation: For the students of Penn, their reality is about how the person ‘they know’ is being hurt, not how the person ‘they don’t know’ was being hurt. Sad to say that far too many youth, specifically the youth culture of this generation are less about the skill of entering the reality of another outside of their box nor what is right to be responsible for versus wrong. This is more of a youth culture of how am I being affected in the now, and those in my inner circle, not worrying about what is outside of their personal box. Note: the children that were sexually abused not only were hurt but they are still hurt as sexual abuse is a deep wound that carries.

Taking ownership of one’s own behavior in relationship to self and in one’s interaction with others and “self-consciousness”. Explanation: Far too many in this generation of young adults have not been educated on the theme of taking ownership of one’s own behavior, nor a society of “other-consciousness”. Rather, it is about me in the moment, what do I want and need, a “self-consciousness”. So, the victims are not a part of their bubble of self-consciousness, only those who have served a purpose and a role in their life are. Look out for me and my needs, look out for #1, that is the mentality of upbringing and of a culture of far too many a youth that now we see before us. Their actions that we see, this painful display of behaviors, is a symbol of and a symptom of that upbringing/mentality of youth culture. In a culture where one is ‘self and other conscious’ there would be less bullying and if another does act in a hurtful way and you have observed this, you would believe it is your responsibility to speak up, your obligation, and you would want to in honoring your value system, and therefore that would be within one’s instinct.

Why is it that there are so many children that do not tell someone when they are sexually abused?

Any one or combination of the following:

Deer in head lights syndrome (shock/frozen).

Disassociation affect: so traumatic mentally the brain enters a disassociated zone/mental place during the act so as to get through it and cope so that after the abuse act their brain enters back into “reality” so as to not have to think about the trauma of what happened. Think of it like putting the abuse in a box while it is happening and when the abuse ends for that day, that hour, you leave the box sealed to go about your day not to open it up again until the next abusive experience. It is a “coping method” for survival.



Belief that their voice will not be heard and/or believed.


Why do some adults not act on such an event? (e.g., hurt the abuser as soon as they find out, speak with the abuser, go to the authorities, etc.)

Depending on the adult it can be any one of these choices below only or a combination:

Fear of the consequences/negative ramifications that their acting on an event such as reporting it to the higher authorities will have on them as an individual, their professional career, and their family. This is a feature of conflict avoidance and fear blended together.

Shock syndrome/disbelief/denial – To be witness to, to believe that someone you thought you knew is sexually abusing a child is so beyond the scope of reality that the person’s conscious mind does not know how to process nor handle this trauma. Therefore, the subconscious mind protects one’s self from further trauma by creating a denial affect. In other words, their conscious mind does not want and/or cannot handle this reality so their subconscious mind creates a mental block of recognizing this reality so as to not have to process such a trauma. Therefore the mind remains in a disbelief/denial of sorts.

Blinded mentality – This is a person that lives one’s life more with a turned eye and ear out of “not wanting to know”. There are some that live a life philosophy more of not getting involved and minding their own business then being a part of life around them. Not really ‘seeing’ what is before them.

Lacking a moral instinctual reactive response – There are people that do not have a moral instinctual response. Or rather they do, but it is at a “c-” or perhaps a “D-” level and therefore are influenced by others, especially if another of higher authority is unsupportive of what you are saying. In these cases the person’s instinct is indeed of a moral standard but that instinct is not of fully developed strength (not an A+ nor even a B-) and therefore does not hold its own when left unsupported.

Connection lacking – There are people that lack the connection impulse mentally between event and emotions and right versus wrong. A person that lacks this connection may make choices that are hurtful to others and not fully grasp what they have done. Some make the connection if they feel they are directly doing an act to another that is hurtful but do not make the connection between someone else’s actions in how that affects another in terms of their involvement if they are witness to that event. Rather than experiencing a witness role as being involved, they feel they are ‘out of it’ and therefore do not see the full connection of the fact that the act is hurting another and they are a player in this to act on it. Thereby, they do not take action due to lacking the connection impulse of right versus wrong and my role in this life moment.

Hierarchy of power – Believes in this mentality and will follow orders if told what to do or not to do. Goes through the hierarchy of power in terms of reporting and does not go past one’s immediate superior. If that person does not proceed then the buck stops there.

Uncaring – There are adults that do not care about the challenges of others. Or, they do not care to care.

What are some of the negative effects of being a sexually abused child as a child and when this child becomes  an adult in terms of their individual and relational mental health and wellness?

Individual mental health: low self worth, self blame, angry, self injurious behaviors (e.g., cutting), low motivation, sexual confusion, difficulty concentrating (e.g., at school, at work), suicidal ideation, various mental illnesses some of which include; borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, attachment disorder, depression, drug addiction/abuse (i.e., self medication methods to escape the emotional pain), makes irresponsible choices.

Relational mental health: unhealthy relationships with others, isolation, lack of trust, commitment issues, bullying behaviors or isolating behaviors as some turn inward and others turn outward, connection challenges/unhealthy connection skills, some sexually abuse others, verbal and or physically abusive to others.

If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, do seek out help. If you know someone who you think may be abusing someone or is being abused, do not live with your head in the sand, address the issue.


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