Despite a decade of scrutiny, sexual assault and harassment in the military remains a pervasive problem. Recent estimates show that 6% of women in the military have been sexually assaulted in the past year. Another 24% have been victims of sexual harassment.
While efforts to eradicate this problem continue, there is also this: the traumatic effects of these assaults can be long-lasting, certainly extending beyond the period of active duty. So it’s not just military services, but also veterans services, that need to connect these women to proper mental health care.
On this front, there has not been enough progress.
Women’s difficulties in obtaining treatment for sexual trauma are of course not unique to the military. But like so many other things, serving in the military is a complicating factor.
In surveys, focus groups, and interviews, military women have shared how they are filled with doubt and shame after a sexually traumatic experience. They felt they should have been able to prevent or stop it. They worried about what their peers or commanders would think. Or, they considered the trauma not “serious” enough to warrant care, perhaps especially if they compared their experience to that of combat.
“It was not violent for me. I froze,” one veteran told researchers at the University of New Mexico. “So that’s another reason why I feel guilty because it’s like I wasn’t fighting. I just froze and put up with it, so I feel like, damn , it was my fault. … In a way, I am responsible for this.
Women should not feel like there is a trauma threshold for seeking mental health care. This message must be conveyed clearly and repeatedly throughout a military career – from pre-deployment to post-deployment to transition out of the military. As one female veteran put it in another study of military sexual trauma during deployment: “You can’t just say it once and say, ‘OK, that option is there if you need help.’ People won’t cling to that. You just have to keep drilling it and at some point you’re going to want some help.
Women who have been assaulted or harassed also overwhelmingly report that they do not trust military or veteran health systems or their providers. Adding more female psychiatrists, psychologists and other counselors could help. Research found that victims of sexual trauma who requested and were unable to obtain female care providers were more likely to opt out of Department of Veterans Affairs health care.
In addition, the very environment of military and veteran health care settings can be unwelcoming, if not downright triggering. As one woman shared in a study of perceptions of VA health care: “There are so many men here. There are many, many men, and men who have especially worn uniforms. And that was one of my big triggers, was being around people in uniform.
VA facilities could roll out more female-only spaces and clinics, or at least establish adequate distancing between patients in waiting rooms. Additionally, VA staff, including receptionists, could be trained in stigma-reducing communication techniques.
Difficulty getting appointments, time off from work, getting childcare, and the cost – all of these factors have also kept women from seeking mental health treatment. And, of course, standard mental health care requires multiple visits, so these hurdles keep coming up.
For military mothers, programs like Children’s Waiting Room hold promising models that could make it easier for them to access medical appointments, especially given that women with children are less likely to stay in psychotherapy than those without children. . Health systems could also offer weekend or evening appointments.
The Pentagon recently clarified that its convalescent leave policy should be extended to victims of sexual assault, giving them time to recuperate. He also clarified that service members should be allowed time off from normal duties for medical or counseling appointments. But this policy does not appear to allow time off to seek treatment for other traumatic experiences, such as sexual harassment.
The Pentagon and VA must also continue their efforts to ensure victims receive high-quality mental health care in a safe and supportive environment — and don’t have to jump over hurdles to get it.
Julia Rollison is a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Her research focuses on public health issues, access and quality of health care, with a focus on reproductive health and the health workforce.
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