VA Maryland Health Care System Raises Awareness for Military Sexual Trauma in April

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In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, providers at the VA Maryland Health Care System wish to raise awareness of military sexual trauma (MST), reported to affect one in five women and one in 100 men. The health care system also wants to emphasize that help is available for MST survivors. If you or someone you know has experienced MST, help is available. The VA Maryland Health Care System provides comprehensive evaluation for treatment related to MST, including individual and/or group psychotherapy and medication management.

"Because sexual trauma associated with military service most often occurs in a setting where the service member lives and works, many who experience MST must continue to interact and work closely with their perpetrators on an ongoing basis afterward."

In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, providers at the VA Maryland Health Care System wish to raise awareness of military sexual trauma (MST), reported to affect one in five women and one in 100 men. The health care system also wants to emphasize that help is available for MST survivors. Although sexual trauma occurs more frequently among women than among men, the disproportionate ratio of men to women in the military means that within the VA system, there are actually comparable numbers of men and women who report experiencing MST. If you or someone you know has experienced MST, help is available. The VA Maryland Health Care System provides comprehensive evaluation for treatment related to MST, including individual and/or group psychotherapy and medication management. Following comprehensive evaluation services, trained professionals assist Veterans in exploring various treatment options and developing a treatment plan to meet their mental and physical health needs.

What is Military Sexual Trauma, or MST?

  •     Military sexual trauma is the term the Department of Veterans Affairs uses to refer to sexual assault, or repeated, unsolicited, threatening acts of sexual harassment that occurred while a Veteran was serving on active duty or during military training.
  •     MST includes any sexual activity where someone is involved against his or her will – he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied faster promotions or better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities.
  •     Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing; threatening, offensive remarks about a person's body or sexual activities; and/or threatening and unwelcome sexual advances.

How different is MST from sexual trauma experienced outside of the military?

Many aspects of MST may make these experiences qualitatively different for Veterans and service members.

  •     Because sexual trauma associated with military service most often occurs in a setting where the service member lives and works, many who experience MST must continue to interact and work closely with their perpetrators on an ongoing basis after the trauma occurs. In some cases, service members may need to rely on their perpetrators (or associates of their perpetrators) to authorize medical and psychological care or provide for other basic needs. This may leave them at risk for additional victimization and often increases their sense of helplessness and powerlessness.
  •     Service members who experience MST may suffer career-related consequences in that their perpetrators are frequently peers or supervisors with the power to influence work evaluations and decisions about promotions. Even if this is not the case, service members who experience MST may face the difficult choice of either continuing military careers in which they are forced to have frequent contact with their perpetrators or sacrificing career goals in order to protect themselves from future victimization.
  •     Most military units are characterized by high unit cohesion, particularly during combat. Although this level of cohesion is typically a positive aspect of military service, the dynamics it creates may amplify the difficulties of responding to sexual harassment and assault. For example, the high value placed on organizational cohesion may make it taboo to disclose any negative information about a fellow service member. As a result, many who experience MST are reluctant to report sexual trauma and may struggle to identify―even to themselves―that what occurred was an assault.
  •     Service members who choose to report to those in authority often feel that they are not believed or, even worse, find themselves blamed for what happened. They may be encouraged to keep silent and their reports may be ignored. This type of invalidating experience can negatively impact post-traumatic adjustment and recovery.

How can MST affect Veterans and service members?

  •     Given the range of sexual victimization experiences that Veterans report (ranging from inappropriate sexual jokes or flirtation, to pressure for sexual favors, to completed forcible rape), Veterans may experience a wide range of emotional reactions in response to these events, including difficulties with anger, depression and shame. Veterans who experience MST may also have difficulties with trust, avoidance of social activities, sleep disturbance, sexual dysfunction and confusion related to sexuality.
  •     Due to emotional consequences, survivors of sexual assault may use use alcohol and/or drugs in the attempt to escape intense psychological pain. Although substance use may provide short-term relief from painful memories and emotions, the long-term consequences of addiction negatively impact social and occupational functioning, often contributing to worsening of psychological symptoms, including depression and anxiety.
  •     Physical symptoms of MST include chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, and gynecological problems. The treatment of these and other important health conditions may be adversely affected by survivors' reluctance to present for routine medical exams or undergo important medical procedures. VA mental health care providers can assist Veterans in communicating with medical providers about their needs.
  •     Individual Veterans respond in many different ways following military sexual trauma – the intensity, duration, and path of psychological responses all vary based on individual factors, including a Veteran's previous trauma history, his/her appraisal of the event, and the quality of his/her support systems following the trauma. Also important to consider is that sexual victimization experiences fall far outside of the prescribed male gender role. Thus, while the types of psychological reactions experienced by men and women are often similar, men may struggle with different issues than women, may feel more shame about their victimization, and may be less likely to seek professional help.

Treatment opportunities are available at the VA Maryland Health Care System?

If you or someone you know has experienced MST, help is available. The VA Maryland Health Care System provides comprehensive evaluation for treatment related to military sexual trauma, including individual and/or group psychotherapy and medication management. Following comprehensive evaluation services, trained professionals assist Veterans in exploring various treatment options and developing a treatment plan to meet their mental and physical health needs. For more information about treatment options at the VA Maryland Health Care System, Veterans may speak with their current VA primary care provider and ask for the MST Treatment Coordinator for VA Maryland Health Care System.

Note to Reporters: To interview Dr. Sara Nett, clinical psychologist and MST treatment coordinator at the VA Maryland Health Care System, please call Rosalia Scalia, public affairs specialist, at 410.605.7464, or e-mail her at rosalia.scalia(at)va(dot)gov.

The VA Maryland Health Care System (VAMHCS) provides a broad spectrum of medical, surgical, rehabilitative, mental health and outpatient care to veterans at two medical centers, one community living & rehabilitation center and five outpatient clinics located throughout the state. More than 52,000 veterans from various generations receive care from the VAMHCS annually. Nationally recognized for its state-of-the-art technology and quality patient care, the VAMHCS is proud of its reputation as a leader in veterans’ health care, research and education. It costs nothing for Veterans to enroll for health care with the VA Maryland Health Care System and it could be one of the more important things a Veteran can do. For information about VA health care eligibility and enrollment or how to apply for a VA medical care hardship to avoid future copayments for VA health care, interested Veterans are urged to call the Enrollment Center for the VA Maryland Health Care System, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 1-800-463-6295, ext. 7324 or visit http://www.maryland.va.gov.

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Rosalia Scalia