Mental distress and sexual harassment in Italian university students

  • Federica BastianiEmail author
  • Patrizia Romito
  • Marie-Josephe Saurel-Cubizolles
Original Article


Only a few studies have analyzed the association between sexual harassment (SH) and mental health controlling for other types of violence. The aim of this study was to describe SH among male and female university students and analyze the association between harassment and mental distress controlling for sexual violence. An observational survey was conducted at Trieste University (Italy). Students answered an anonymous questionnaire about harassment that included three domains—sexual harassment, gender harassment, cyber harassment—and three psychological health indicators. The global harassment index was computed, with three levels: 0, no harassment; level 1, harassment in at least one of the three domains; and level 2, harassment in two or three domains. The symptoms of mental distress were measured by the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) for depressive symptoms; a question about panic symptoms; and a question about general health. The sample included 759 students (412 women; 18 to 29 years old). After adjustment for age, birth country, couple relationship, employment status, mother’s education, and previous sexual violence, the risk of mental distress was increased with harassment exposure. Men were affected in perceived health and depressive symptoms (GHQ score ≥ 6); women were affected in panic symptoms. Harassment has a strong negative impact on the mental health of victims; in some cases, men may be more affected than women. Clinicians should be aware of the negative impact of SH also on men.


Mental distress Panic Sexual harassment Cyber harassment Gender differences 



The authors are grateful to Carlotta Cedolin and Rossella Pisacane who contributed to data collection and coding, and to the young men and women who were willing to share their experiences of harassment with us.

Author contribution

The three authors have worked together at the preparation of the manuscript. PR and FB have specially collaborated to the survey design and data collection. PR, MJSC, and FB have analyzed data and prepared the draft. The three authors have carefully revised final version of this text.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicting of interests

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Austria, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Federica Bastiani
    • 1
    Email author
  • Patrizia Romito
    • 1
  • Marie-Josephe Saurel-Cubizolles
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Life Sciences—Psychology UnitUniversity of TriesteTriesteItaly
  2. 2.INSERM UMR 1153—Obstetrical, Perinatal and Pediatric Epidemiology Research Team (EPOPé) Center for Epidemiology and Statistics Sorbonne Paris Cité, DHU Risks in pregnancyParis Descartes UniversityParis Cedex 20France

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