Female Veterans and PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD are often associated with America’s front line combat units, which until 2015 have been completely made up of men. However with an increasing number of women now serving in the U.S. military, including as front line U.S. Army Officers and Marines, more attention must be paid to the increasingly high percentage of female service members who suffer from PTSD.

Women currently comprise 17% of U.S. military personnel and are the fastest growing group of military veterans. According to PTSD United, 71% of these women develop Military Sexual Trauma (MST) due to sexual assault within the ranks, unwanted sexual activity, insulting sexual comments or unwanted sexual advances. Military.com reports that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men. Tragically, women are also more likely to blame themselves for trauma experiences than men.

The Department of Veteran Affairs notes that while 20% of female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD, that number is also rising. PTSD amongst women generally arrives from four major stress factors, including combat operations (11% of Afghanistan/Iraq veterans are female), sexual assualt, feelings of isolation and worries about family back home.

While women continue to be integrated into front line combat roles, they have already been exposed to increasingly hostile situations involving urban warfare in the past two American overseas campaigns. Receiving hostile fire, returning fire and seeing casualties are issues that bother many veterans. As female service members continue to increase in number, so will their risk of PTSD.

Feelings of detachment can be substantial, if female personnel are deployed to new groups where they do not know other service members. It takes time to overcome the gender gap to build friendships and trusting relationships. In high stress operations, that support network amongst fellow service members becomes particularly critical.

Increased stresses regarding families left at home is another factor. Female service members are often given little notice before deploying for a year or more, which can develop worries about how their young children, elderly parents or other loved ones will be cared for while they are away. Men of course also often face a difficult transition returning home to civilian life, but many women report that it is extremely difficult to return to the ‘mommy role’ after deploying. Conflicts with children are also more common upon returning from a campaign.

Men and women report the same symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance, numbing, hyper-arousal and re-experiencing. Women experience some of these symptoms more commonly than men, such as feeling ‘jumpy’, having difficulty expressing emotion, and avoidance behavior around triggering situations. Women suffering from PTSD are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, while men are more likely to feel anger and develop issues with alcohol or drugs. Both genders are at risk of developing physical health problems.

Researchers at the National Center for PTSD have found that social support networks after returning from overseas is critical for women to avoid developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional support and simply having someone to talk to are essential for us all, and female veterans rely heavily on caring individuals and helping hands to adjust more comfortably to postwar life. At The Soldiers Project that’s exactly what our nationwide network of therapists offer, day-in and day-out. If you know of or are a woman suffering from PTSD, reach out and talk to us. The first step towards healing is the most crucial.

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