Military women are exposed to the same traumatic experiences as male soldiers, including combat situations, violence, and loss of comrades. The effects of combat exposure increase veterans’ risk of psychological distress (stress, depression, and anxiety), trauma, mood disorders, and PTSD. The high frequency of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women veterans is a product of the unique, gender-specific challenges faced in the military and the stigma surrounding seeking help and treatment.
Understanding the Prevalence of PTSD in Women Veterans
Military service members and veterans are at high risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, a mental health disorder developed following a traumatic experience. Traumatic events witnessed or experienced during combat, and the extreme stress associated with it are significant contributing factors to PTSD. Women veterans, compared to male soldiers and civilian women, are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based on a variety of factors.
The effects of combat exposure, direct combat, and witnessing war violence are among the most common reasons veterans have PTSD. A significant risk factor for women in the military developing PTSD is the prevalence of military sexual trauma (MST). Sexual assault and harassment in the military can have long-lasting effects on veterans’ mental and physical health. Women face gender-specific challenges and trauma in military service, including sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. These all contribute to the development of mental health disorders in women veterans.
Due to the stigma surrounding veterans and mental health, there is a significant underreporting of PTSD symptoms among women veterans. Fear of retaliation and the belief that seeking help is a sign of weakness often discourages women from seeking treatment. As a result, this leads to lower reported rates of PTSD and untreated mental health conditions in veterans. When mental health conditions are left untreated, this often heightens the risk of developing another mental illness or a co-occurring disorder. A co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, is the coexistence of multiple mental health disorders.
Exploring the Unique Challenges Faced by Women in Military Service
With the military being primarily a male dominant environment, this can be incredibly intimidating and uncomfortable for women. The additional challenges women face in the military, such as military sexual trauma (MST)—sexual assault, harassment, misconduct—and gender discrimination, increase the rate of PTSD found in women veterans. In addition to combat-related stress and trauma, these gender-specific challenges faced by women in the military can significantly impact their overall health and well-being. The frequency of co-occurring mental health conditions in women veterans with PTSD—depression, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and substance use disorders (SUDs)—is high due to various factors, including the stigma surrounding seeking treatment and the lack of social support.
Gender-Specific Challenges in the Military
While access to women’s healthcare in the military has significantly improved over the years, historically, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was primarily designed to cater to male service members, which limited access to women’s services. With women’s healthcare access limited in previous years, women veterans now suffer the consequences. With this restricted availability of women’s healthcare services within the VA system, like gynecological care, reproductive health, and maternity care, women experienced a lack of support and care when they needed it most. This feeling of helplessness and inadequacy can heighten symptoms of PTSD, extreme distress, anxiety, and depression.
Women commonly face stereotyping and gender bias during their time in the military. Some examples of gender bias in the military include being perceived as less capable of specific roles or tasks solely based on gender. Additionally, unequal treatment in the military can manifest in areas such as training, assignments, evaluations, and promotion. Women might experience being subjected to different standards or expectations than male service members. These gender-specific challenges can impact their opportunities for advancement and recognition while weakening their self-esteem.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) on Women’s Veterans’ Mental Health
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men report having experienced military sexual trauma (MST) at some point during their military service. However, most MST survivors remain silent about their experiences, which complicates an accurate estimate of their prevalence. Women veterans with MST don’t feel comfortable discussing their trauma due to the triggering emotions and flashbacks it provokes. MST survivors often feel shamed for what they experienced, which can cause feelings of doubt, low self-esteem, and depression. Living with unhealed and untreated trauma can lead to the development of other mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, major depressive disorder (MDD), and substance use disorder (SUD). When someone has more than one mental health disorder simultaneously, it is called a co-occurring disorder.
Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions in Women Veterans with PTSD
A co-occurring mental health condition is the coexistence of multiple mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, sleep disorders, and substance abuse. Commonly referred to as a co-occurring disorder or comorbidity, this is often found in women veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dealing with PTSD as a women veteran can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and evoke sadness, anger, depression, and anxiety. The most common symptoms of PTSD include vivid flashbacks, nightmares, heightened reactions, and anxiety. Symptoms of PTSD, including depressed mood or sadness, can lead to alcohol or drug use to temporarily relieve the pain. While the effects of alcohol and drugs are short-lived, they can be exhilarating, which causes an increase in substance abuse. Using substances as a coping mechanism for mental health issues is an ineffective solution to addressing the problem.
The coexistence of mental health disorders in women veterans with PTSD intensifies symptoms of both disorders. Exacerbated symptoms of mental health disorders impair daily functioning and overall quality of life. Addressing the prevalence of women veterans with PTSD is essential for providing comprehensive and effective care to prevent further mental health issues.
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- National Library of Medicine, 2019. Combat exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder, and head injuries differentially relate to alterations in cortical thickness in military veterans.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
- National Institute of Mental Health, 2023. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.