MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA
VA uses the term “military sexual trauma” (MST) to refer to sexual assault or harassment experienced during military. Anyone can experience MST, regardless of gender.
In more concrete terms, MST includes any unwanted sexual activity. Examples include:
- Being threatened or pressured into sexual activities, such as with threats or promises of better assignments
- Sexual contact without your consent, such as when asleep or intoxicated
- Being physically forced to have sex
- Being touched in a way that made you uncomfortable
- Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities
- Threatening and unwanted sexual advances
If you think you have experienced MST, VA and its resources are here to support you in whatever way will help you best — from simply learning more about how MST affects people to treatment that helps you cope with how MST is impacting your life currently or, if you prefer, treatment that involves discussing your experiences in more depth.
Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even many years later. Things you may experience could include:
- Disturbing memories or nightmares
- Difficulty feeling safe
- Feelings of depression or numbness
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs
- Feeling isolated from other people
- Problems with anger, irritability, or other strong emotions
- Issues with sleep
- Physical health problems
HOW CAN MST (MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA AFFECT VETERANS?
Military sexual trauma is an experience, not a diagnosis or a condition in and of itself. Because of this, Veterans may react in a wide variety of ways to experiencing MST. Problems may not surface until months or years after the MST, and sometimes not until after a Veteran has left military service. For some Veterans, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health, work, relationships, and everyday life even many years later.
Your reaction may depend on factors such as:
- Whether you have a prior history of trauma
- The types of responses you received from others at the time of the experience
- Whether the experience happened once or was repeated over time
Some of the difficulties both female and male survivors of MST may have include:
- Strong emotions: feeling depressed; having intense, sudden emotional responses to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time
- Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally “flat”; trouble feeling love or happiness<
- Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep; bad dreams or nightmares
- Trouble with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; often finding your mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
- Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting drunk or “high” to cope with memories or unpleasant feelings; drinking to fall asleep
- Trouble with reminders of the sexual trauma: feeling on edge or “jumpy” all the time; not feeling safe; going out of your way to avoid reminders of the trauma; trouble trusting others
- Problems in relationships: feeling alone or not connected to others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures
- Physical health problems: sexual issues; chronic pain; weight or eating problems; stomach or bowel problems
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has services to help Veterans move their lives forward.
What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.
PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II. But PTSD does not just happen to combat veterans. PTSD can occur in all people, in people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and any age. PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD.
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.
A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting traumatic event. However, exposure could be indirect rather than first hand. For example, PTSD could occur in an individual learning about the violent death of a close family. It can also occur as a result of repeated exposure to horrible details of trauma such as police officers exposed to details of child abuse cases.
While suffering from PTSD can be an isolating experience, it’s important to know that you are not the only one who feels this way, and there are resources available to help you get back to leading the life you want. PTSD can happen to anyone and is not a sign of weakness. PTSD helplines are a non-judgmental, safe first step in the right direction for receiving treatment.
Family members and friends can feel helpless and lost trying to find help for a loved one. It also may be hard for the actual person struggling with PTSD to ask for help. Friends and family members are often the catalyst that allows someone to receive the critical help they need.It is important to realize that it may take time, but with treatment, your loved one can recover.2 A post-traumatic stress disorder helpline can help point you in the right direction.