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Women veterans and mental health

female veteran and her mother

Recent research shows that about 25to 30 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of a mental disorder. Untreated mental health issues can result in long-term problems for you, your family, and your community, so it's important to see your doctor or a counselor if you're feeling depressed, sad, or anxious.

If you served in the military, you are at risk for mental health problems as a result of your experiences or injuries. These mental health issues may include:

Home life struggles are also common, and can include marital and caregiver stress, elder abuse or neglect, and problems with parenting anger management. These types of relationship challenges can build on already existing mental health problems or lead to them.

Are you thinking of suicide? If yes, please do the following

  • Dial: 911
  • Dial: 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Check yourself into the emergency room.
  • Tell someone who can help you find help right away.
  • Stay away from things that might hurt you.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and women veterans

PTSD can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you.

If you are in the military, you may have seen combat. You may have been on missions that exposed you to horrible and life-threatening experiences. You may have been shot at, seen a friend shot, or seen death. These are types of events that can lead to PTSD.

Military sexual trauma (MST) can also lead to PTSD. Sometimes, PTSD is also associated with intimate partner violence (IPV).

Women are more likely than men to develop chronic, or long-lasting, PTSD after experiencing a trauma. Not all women who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. However, women are more likely to develop PTSD if they:

  • Have a past mental health problem (like depression or anxiety)
  • Experience a very severe or life-threatening trauma
  • Were sexually assaulted
  • Were injured during the event
  • Had a severe reaction at the time of the event
  • Experienced other stressful events afterwards
  • Do not have good social support

Some PTSD symptoms are more common in women than in men. Women are more likely to be jumpy, to have trouble feeling emotions, and to avoid things that remind them of the trauma.

Treatment

PTSD can be treated. A doctor or mental health professional with experience in treating people with PTSD can help you. Treatment may include "talk" therapy, medication, or both.

Treatment might take 6 to 12 weeks. For some people, it takes longer. Treatment is not the same for everyone. What works for you might not work for someone else.

Remember: drinking alcohol or using other drugs will not help PTSD go away, and may even make it worse.

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Military sexual trauma and women veterans

Military sexual trauma (MST) is sexual harassment or sexual assault that happens while you are in the military.

Sexual harassment may include:

  • A put-down because of your gender
  • Flirting when you've made it clear it's not welcome
  • Sexual comments or gestures about your body or lifestyle
  • Pressure for sexual favors

Sexual assault is any kind of sexual activity you don't want. It can include:

  • Touching or grabbing
  • Intercourse
  • Oral or anal sex
  • Penetration with an object

MST can happen during war, peace, or training. It can be man-to-woman, woman-to-man, woman-to-woman, or man‑to‑man. If you've experienced MST, you may feel fear, shame, anger, embarrassment, or guilt. You may feel it is hard to trust people. You may even have physical symptoms like headaches, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, or gynecological problems.

Treatment

After a sexual assault, many veterans keep quiet. They worry about what others will think about them if they speak up. But if you have experienced MST, you should find help. The Veteran's Administration (VA) has qualified MST counselors at every hospital. They can discuss treatment with you to help you get better. Counseling is often used to treat MST. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines that can help with your symptoms. Treatment can help you cope with the trauma and regain any lost self-esteem.

Getting help for military sexual trauma

If you've experience military sexual trauma (MST), or intimate partner violence (IPV) as a result of MST, you can contact your nearest Veteran's Administration (VA) facility to speak with the MST coordinator. Every VA facility has providers knowledgeable about treatment for the aftereffects of MST. Many have specialized outpatient mental health services focusing on sexual trauma.

In addition, the following phone numbers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It may be helpful to memorize them in case of emergency.

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Intimate partner violence (IPV) and women veterans

IPV is also known as domestic violence. IPV is when a current or former partner uses behaviors or threats that can make you feel scared, controlled, or intimidated. A relationship in which IPV occurs is an abusive relationship.

IPV could include any of the following:

  • Physical violence – hitting, pushing, grabbing, biting, choking, shaking, slapping
  • Sexual violence – attempted or actual sexual contact without your consent
  • Threats of physical or sexual abuse – words, looks or gestures to control or frighten
  • Psychological or emotional abuse – humiliating, putting down, isolating, threatening
  • Stalking – following, harassing, or unwanted contact that makes you feel afraid

What are some signs of an abusive relationship?

Relationships can be complicated in general. A relationship with IPV can be overwhelming and confusing. Sometimes it can be hard to know if you have experienced IPV. The following questions give some examples of unsafe behaviors that can happen in a relationship.

  • Does your partner control all of the family income and budget? Control your work or your schooling?
  • Does your partner keep you away from friends and family? Control you by questions and threats about what you do, where you go, and people you see?
  • Does your partner put you down, or make you feel guilty or ashamed? Blame you for the abuse?
  • Does your partner make or carry out threats to hurt your body or your feelings, or those of someone you love? Threaten to ruin your reputation? Threaten to take your children away?
  • Does your partner scare you by breaking or destroying objects, or punching holes in walls? Hurting or threatening pets?
  • Does your partner physically or sexually assault you or your children?

MST survivors are more likely to experience other kinds of violence, such as IPV. Not much is known about which things make someone more likely to hurt their spouse or partner. But PTSD may make a person more likely to hurt or threaten their partner.

Treatment

While IPV itself is not a mental disorder, a number of mental health diagnoses are associated with being a victim of IPV. IPV can lead to PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems.

A doctor or mental health professional with experience in treating people who experience IPV can help you. Treatment may include "talk" therapy, medication, or both.

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More information on Women veterans and mental health

Explore other publications and websites

  • Depression (Copyright © AfterDeployment.org) - Problems with low mood are common after a deployment or return to civilian life. In the Dealing with Depression Program, learn about the causes and signs of depression. You can work in activity-based simulations and view testimonials from service members and their families.
  • Men and Women Veterans: Know the Warning Signs of Suicide - Did you know returning veterans may be at a higher risk of suicide? If you are thinking about hurting yourself, or if you experience any of the warning signs listed in this pamphlet, please call the National Suicide toll-free hotline number (1-800-273-TALK).
  • PTSD and Suicide - This fact sheet explores the relationship between PTSD and suicide. It also addresses important questions about understanding and coping with suicide.
  • Women Veterans Health Care - This brochure lists the various health care services available to women veterans, including general health care, mental health management, and other special programs.
  • Women Veterans Health Care: Frequently Asked Questions - This website answers questions about health care services specific to women veterans. It covers topics such as access to reproductive health care, resources for pregnant women, and how to get evaluated for nursing home care.
  • Women Veterans Health Care: Military Sexual Trauma - This website addresses the specific needs of women veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST). It describes the symptoms of MST and provides information on how to get help.
  • Women, Trauma, and PTSD - This fact sheet explains why women are more likely to get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than men after a traumatic event, what the signs and symptoms of PTSD are, and how the reactions to PTSD differ between men and women.

Connect with other organizations

Content last updated March 29, 2010.

Resources last updated March 29, 2010.

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