Increased Combat Roles Raise Concerns of PTSD Symptoms in Women Vets

ptsd symptoms in women soldiers
Female veterans and their families should be aware of the unique symptoms and challenges that women face with post-combat PTSD. Image: Flickr user John. F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center

In a historic decision accompanied by a flurry of media coverage, the U.S. military opened up all combat roles to women in 2015. The move was celebrated by some as the dissolution of gender barriers in the military—barriers which previously kept women from fulfilling their full potential as they pursued military careers. However, this recent decision may also raise new concerns for female veterans and their families, as these women face high-intensity combat situations. Following a traumatic experience, women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their male counterparts, and the symptoms often differ.[1. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/women/women-trauma-and-ptsd.asp] By staying informed on the risks, symptoms, and treatment for PTSD in female combat veterans, these courageous women can take action to protect their mental health during and following their military service.

PTSD in Women: Unique Challenges

According to U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, “People are assigned to missions, tasks and functions according to need as well as their capabilities. And women will be subject to the same standard and rules that men will.”[2. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-women-combat-idUSKBN0TM28520151204] The new, one-size-fits-all approach to combat roles may have standardized the criteria for individuals looking to increase their role in combat, but that same, blanket approach can’t be applied to assessing and diagnosing post-combat PTSD. Most of the early research on combat PTSD was done on male veterans after the Vietnam War—a very narrow sample set that is not necessarily applicable to the experiences of female veterans today.[3. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/women/women-trauma-and-ptsd.asp] Not only do women face different risks of trauma with military service than men do, but they also respond to those traumas differently.

Women’s increased likelihood of PTSD is a complex, multi-faceted issue, and one woman’s likelihood of developing PTSD after trauma could hinge on any number of factors, including her previous history of mental health issues such as depression (which women are more prone to than men), her social support structure, whether or not the trauma involved sexual assault, and how the victim directs blame for her trauma. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, “women may be more likely to blame themselves for trauma experiences than men”—which could be aggravated by the lack of support that the military has historically provided for women who have experienced sexual assault by their peers during their military service.

Sexual Assault in the Military: The Other Battle Scars

Public perception of PTSD centers around the vision of the shell-shocked veteran, who saw extreme physical violence on the battlefield. Although women do face the risk of PTSD from battle, they also face an entire, additional realm of trauma, dealt by their fellow servicemen. According to the U.S. department of Veteran Affairs, “Women in the military are at higher risk for exposure to sexual harassment or sexual assault than men.” The military has also been known to retaliate against and harass victims of sexual assault, and when the victim is ostracized and threatened for taking action to protect themselves, it’s only likely to aggravate the trauma.[4. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-the-military-retaliates-against-sexual-assault-victims/]

Not every trauma results in PTSD—but sexual assault is one of the forms of trauma most likely to result in PTSD, putting women at greater risk. Additionally, two other known aggravating factors for developing PTSD include not having adequate social support to cope with a traumatic event, or having additional traumatic events follow the original incident. Unfortunately, the victim of military sexual assault is likely to meet all these criteria.[5. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/women/women-trauma-and-ptsd.asp]

Recognizing and Coping with Post-Military PTSD Symptoms in Women

PTSD can show its face differently in male and female victims. Women are reportedly more likely to be depressed, nervous and riddled with anxiety. They may make an effort to avoid anything that could remind them of their trauma. On the other hand, men are more likely to develop drug and alcohol problems comorbid with PTSD. Since our pop-cultural image of PTSD has attuned us to recognizing the PTSD victim as the heavy drinker, the male veteran who spends his nights at the bar, we may be less prone to recognizing the more covert, emotional symptoms that women face.

Taking Action to Address PTSD

If you or a woman you care about is experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety following a trauma, acknowledge that it may indicative of PTSD that needs to be treated through professional therapy. Not every trauma shows on the surface, but taking care of yourself from the inside out is the first step toward reintegrating into a peaceful, happy life as a civilian.

At Bridges to Recovery, we are deeply sensitive to the complex emotions that arise with PTSD and offer a home-like treatment facility where you can release the burden of your trauma. Take the first steps toward mental peace and a fulfilling civilian life by reaching out to us today.