Once considered a problem limited to active duty male military service members and veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder is regularly diagnosed in female service members and veterans who most often suffer the condition because of sexual assault while serving in the military.
Dr. Linda Lindman has worked extensively with male and female PTSD patients for the Veterans Health Administration and currently works as a clinical psychologist at a community-based outpatient clinic for the VA in Kennewick, Washington. “Anybody can have post-traumatic stress,” she said. “The military does not have any kind of exclusivity in regards to PTSD.”
While PTSD manifests itself differently in men and women, the treatment is largely the same despite the type of trauma experienced. “You really have to talk about what happened,” said Lindman. “There are new treatments being tested, but we try to use empirically based treatment methods we know to be effective. Right now, prolonged exposure therapy is our best method.”
Men with PTSD often abuse drugs or alcohol and tend to have problems with anger, whereas women tend to avoid any reminder of the triggering incident, become depressed and anxious and numb themselves emotionally, according to Lindman.
“Women are also more likely to blame themselves than men are, and that’s very typical in a sexual assault type situation,” Lindman said. “Women tend to assume the blame primarily because they are blamed.”
About 10 percent of women in the U.S. develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event while 4 percent of men do.
“In the military, most often women simply shut their mouths,” Lindman said. “It kills your career. That secrecy only exacerbates the situation because they don’t get the mental health support they need.”
Suffering sexual trauma during military service is hardly confined to women. “Many of my most touching cases have been men who have been raped by men,” Lindman said. “There are adults who are bullied and this is often the form that bullying takes in those situations.”
According to the Department of Defense News, psychologist and researcher Dr. Jim Hopper delivered sobering statistics to leaders gathered at the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program Summit in Virginia in early 2015. “Most people who sexually assault adult men are heterosexuals,” he said. “Those same heterosexual men who are assaulting men are often the same men assaulting women.”
The DOD currently estimates that 13 percent of victimized military men report their assault, compared to 40 percent of victimized women.
The VA estimates 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in the military, though this data applies only to veterans who have chosen to seek VA health care and cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Lindman said that not everyone exposed to trauma develops PTSD. “We don’t even really know what makes a person susceptible,” she said. “We know that women who are sexually assaulted are often assaulted more than once in their lives.” A PTSD response is more likely if victims are injured or have a severe reaction to the event. “With PTSD patients, we often find they had childhood experiences of trauma, so we know it really begins in childhood and was aggravated due to military experience,” Lindman said.
According to a Brown University study on survivors of child abuse in 2015, it can be difficult for nonveterans of either sex to seek treatment for PTSD because of self-blame and the perceived stigma of suffering from a condition they haven’t “earned.”
The study concluded not only that people are suffering but also that they may be much less productive during their struggle. Those who are not treated may develop other medical problems and require public expenditures if they become jobless or homeless.
Jacqueline Furrey of Lakebay, a retired counselor with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, had a career devoted to helping others cope with physical trauma and is a survivor herself. “That’s an important thing for people with post-traumatic stress to know: You can be the person you want to be regardless,” she said. “There are ways to deal with PTSD and I am living proof. People that are in isolation don’t get those messages from outside.”