Women in the Military: Overcoming Challenges
By Kristin Blank
The face of the military is changing. About 11 percent of the U.S. forces currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. By 2010, 14 percent of all veterans in the United States will be women.
A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) and captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, discussed these numbers and their implications in a recent SAMHSA-sponsored teleconference.
She was joined by Bryanne Moore, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Command, and Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Proponency of Behavioral Health at the Office of the U.S. Army Surgeon General.
Compounding trauma that may be caused by wartime experiences, such as seeing a dead body, handling remains, or knowing someone who was injured or killed, women in the military also may experience sexual trauma—including harassment, assault, rape, or other violent acts.
“As women’s roles change, military sexual trauma has increased,” Ms. Power said. “Often, it is not reported.” National surveys suggest that 13 to 30 percent of women veterans have experienced rape during their military service, she said.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the effects of sexual trauma can include depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, intrusive thoughts, and other nonspecific health problems. Dr. Ritchie reported that suicide by women in military units has increased since 2006, and depression is one of the top three problems for women veterans treated by the VA.
“Women service members may not report sexual trauma for fear of retribution, embarrassment, lack of career advancement, or dishonorable discharge,” Ms. Power said.
Ms. Moore, who has served in the military for 7 years with deployments to Iraq, discussed other possible reasons why women may hesitate to come forward after suffering sexual trauma or other mental health problems.
“Women are still seen as weak, whiny, hormonal, and incapable,” she said, noting that some of her male counterparts have described women with these terms. Women may hide a mental health issue for fear that revealing it could further the perception that they cannot handle their military duties.
Ms. Moore had a mental health diagnosis after entering the military, but she was advised by a commanding officer to keep the situation out of her record if it would not affect her work.
She complied with this recommendation because, she said, “I’m already seen as a lower-level soldier because I’m a woman.”
The Army and Federal agencies, including SAMHSA, the VA, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), are making efforts to reach military women and men with mental health problems.
“We now have more than 200 mental health providers in Iraq working toward prevention of mental health problems and helping people who do experience them get immediate treatment,” Dr. Ritchie said.
Ms. Power related some of SAMHSA’s collaborative efforts to help. SAMHSA participated in the DoD Mental Health Task Force (see SAMHSA News online, January/February 2008).
“There is a lot of activity focusing on the efforts to address sexual trauma and to combat overall discrimination in the military regarding mental health treatment,” she said.
According to Ms. Power, the task force vision for DoD includes:
- Fostering a culture of support for psychological health
- Providing a full continuum of care to service members and their families
- Allocating resources to prevention, early intervention, and treatment
- Ensuring that leaders at all levels support mental health services.
Ms. Power said, “Mental health is as important as physical health. We’re seeing a very high level of involvement in the military regarding this issue.”
For more information about SAMHSA’s collaborative efforts to help military women and men, see SAMHSA News online, September/October 2008.