Military servicemen and servicewomen frequently face certain forms of mental and emotional stress, some of which don’t occur with any regularity in civilian populations. However, female veterans do not necessarily face the same mental health challenges as their male counterparts. In a study published in April 2015 in the American Public Health Association journal Medical Care, researchers from two U.S. institutions assessed the differences in the challenges facing men and women. They concluded that female veterans have unique mental health needs largely tied to reproduction-related changes in emotional/psychological well-being.

Veterans and Mental Health

The U.S. population currently contains more than 23 million veterans of military service. In addition to exposure to sources of emotional trauma common in the general population (e.g., sexual assaults, physical assaults, major accidents and natural disasters), servicemen and servicewomen often face exposure to combat environments in which they can receive traumatic brain injuries or other major forms of injury, witness other people getting seriously injured or witness other people getting killed. The impact of traumatic military experiences can lead to the onset of a range of significant mental health issues, including such things as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and suicidal thinking or overtly suicidal behavior.

The federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that almost one in five veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq has diagnosable symptoms of depression or PTSD. A similar number of veterans of these conflicts are dealing with the aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury. In 2012, more Army veterans committed suicide than in any other previous year. Veterans also have a relatively high rate of exposure to diagnosable problems with drugs or alcohol. SAMHSA estimates that only half of all veterans who require mental health treatment actually seek out that treatment. Unfortunately, just over 50 percent of all care-seeking veterans receive appropriate treatment for their specific conditions. Essentially, this means that only one-quarter of all veterans with mental health issues receive the help they need.

Known Risks for Female Veterans

Like women in the civilian population, women in the military have heightened chances of developing PTSD in the aftermath of exposure to highly traumatic events or situations. Unlike civilian women, servicewomen have an increased likelihood of directly or indirectly experiencing combat, one of the most prominent triggers for the onset of PTSD. Like their civilian counterparts, women in the military are also at relatively high risk for exposure to some form of sexual harassment or overt sexual attack. In addition, women in the military share an increased level of exposure to intimate partner violence (i.e., domestic violence) with their civilian counterparts. Apart from PTSD, mental health issues found in female veterans with some regularity include panic disorder and other forms of anxiety disorder, major depression and other depressive illnesses and various forms of substance use disorder (substance abuse/addiction).

Unique Risks for Female Veterans

In the study published in Medical Care, researchers from Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital and the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine used a small-scale project involving 68 women to help determine if female veterans face unique mental health risks associated with their premenstrual, perinatal or menopausal health, or with the presence of specific gynecological health concerns. All of the study participants were veterans of military service. Each participant received a detailed evaluation of her mental health, as well as a detailed evaluation of her reproductive and gynecological health.

After reviewing their data, the researchers concluded that almost 43 percent of the women reported significant premenstrual changes in their mental health. In addition, 33 percent of the participants reported significant pregnancy- or postpartum- related changes in their mental health. Roughly 18 percent of the participants reported menopause-related changes in their mental health. Other issues associated with a substantial reported downturn in mental well-being included unintended pregnancies, uncompleted pregnancies, pelvic pain and painful intercourse (dyspareunia).

The study’s authors believe that their findings point to significant, gender-specific mental health challenges in female veterans of military service. Their findings also indicate that female veterans may face more reproductive and gynecological challenges to mental health than their counterparts who have never served in the military.


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