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Military Sexual Trauma

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Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in San Diego CA

Table of Contents

Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST) is the term that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) use to refer to sexual assault or ongoing sexual harassment that occurred while a veteran was in active military service. MST includes any sexual activity an individual was involved in against their will or when they could not say no.

People of all ages, genders, racial/ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and branches of military service have experienced MST. Like other forms of trauma, MST can negatively affect an individual’s physical and psychological health, even many years after the incident.

What is Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?

Military sexual trauma (MST) is the term that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) use to refer to sexual assault or ongoing sexual harassment that occurred while a veteran was in active military service. MST includes any sexual activity an individual was involved in against their will or when they could not say no.

People of all ages, genders, racial/ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and branches of military service have experienced MST. Like other forms of trauma, MST can negatively affect an individual’s physical and psychological health, even many years after the incident.

How Common is MST & Who Is at Greatest Risk?

Most estimates show military sexual trauma to be much more common among female veterans than their male counterparts. One source estimates that 1 in 4 female veterans in the VA healthcare system has experienced MST1. At the same time, just 1 in 100 male veterans have experienced MST. Other sources report 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men as victims of military sexual trauma2.

Racial minorities, sexual minorities, and unmarried people are at higher risk of MST3. Younger service members (age 17-24) are also more likely than those who are older to experience military sexual trauma.

Examples of Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma includes a variety of threatening, demeaning, or aggressive actions on a spectrum that ranges from ongoing sexual harassment to sexual assault.

This sexual trauma may occur while an individual is on or off duty. It may happen while they are either on or off base. The perpetrator may be of a higher military rank than the victim, lower position, or the same rank. Neither the location of the assault/harassment nor the identity or characteristics of the perpetrator matter.

Specific examples of MST include:

Military Sexual Trauma Statistics

These statistics paint a picture of the overall prevalence of military sexual trauma. The numbers highlight who is most likely to experience this form of sexual harassment or assault. They also display the health effects of MST; and the connection between reporting an assault and being discharged.

Military sexual trauma statistics include:

The Impact of Military Sexual Trauma

It’s important to understand that military sexual trauma is an experience—rather than a specific diagnosis or a mental health condition. As with other forms of traumatic experience, its impact and effects will vary from one individual to another. For many victims, experiencing a sexual assault or ongoing sexual harassment has devastating consequences and leaves lasting physical and psychological scars. Other individuals, however, may remain emotionally resilient and psychologically buoyant in similar circumstances.

Most servicemen and servicewomen will require professional help to recover from MST. However, others may find ways to self-heal from the incident. They may even be able to continue to function well in their military or civilian lives.

How a particular person reacts to and is affected by MST depends upon a variety of factors, including:

In other words, the duration and severity of the effects of military sexual trauma vary from person to person. The overall impact depends upon the unique circumstances. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond to such an experience.

Sexual Trauma in the Military vs. Civilian Life

Some characteristics of military sexual trauma are very similar to those of civilian victims of sexual trauma. However, there are significant differences. MST’s unique features distinguish it from experiences of sexual trauma in civilian life and may intensify its negative impact.

For instance:

MST & Military Cultural Norms

MST occurs within the context of long-standing military cultural norms 3. Until the mid-20th century, for instance, the military was an all-male institution; and is still largely male-dominated.

The ideal soldier (however mythical this might be) is conceived of as being hypermasculine: physically strong, aggressive, dominant, and unemotional.

In military settings, there is an institutional acceptance of violence and at least a covert belief that women are outsiders. This results in a power dynamic and cultural milieu that sets the stage for the sexual objectification of women. As well as the use of violence to assert control and demonstrate dominance.

The military’s culture of secrecy means that survivors of sexual trauma often have to endure the aftermath of the assault on their own. They process the trauma without the emotional support and mental health resources that could help them cope with their distress.

In combination, these elements of military culture contribute to an acceptance of sexual aggression; and a tendency to minimize or dismiss incidents of sexual misconduct.

Military Sexual Trauma Signs & Symptoms

The symptoms experienced from military sexual trauma are often similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

Some of the difficulties people may have after experiencing military sexual trauma include 2:

Individuals experiencing any of these symptoms of military sexual trauma should seek professional help.

Treatment Options for Military Sexual Trauma

1. A Therapist Specializing in Sexual Trauma

Support from a mental health professional—a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist who specializes in sexual trauma—is a vital component of the healing process.

Psychological modalities that may be used by a therapist to treat MST include:

2. Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness practice can be highly effective for someone recovering from military sexual trauma. It can support the veteran in learning how to experience thoughts, sensations, perceptions, and emotions with mindful awareness and stability. They learn to do so without being overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings.

3. Lifestyle Changes

Healthy habits and self-care rituals that can support healing from military sexual trauma include:

4. Optimism, Humor, Gratitude & Smiling

Smiling releases “feel-good” chemicals that elevate the mood and create a sense of wellbeing. So activities that bring a smile to one’s face and make a giggle or a belly laugh are supportive of healing.

Practicing optimism—seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty—is another excellent self-care habit to cultivate. Recalling everything one has to feel grateful for right before bed can set the stage for pleasant, nourishing, healing dreams.

5. Emotional Support Animals & Equine Therapy

Veterans struggling with MST might benefit from adopting an emotional support animal. This is to help them feel more safe, comfortable, and at ease in situations that may otherwise provoke a stress response. While emotional support animals are often dogs, horses can also have profound healing effects on those recovering from MST.

Equine therapy is a therapeutic modality that uses horse-riding to treat trauma symptoms 9. This therapy has proven successful in treating PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Equine therapy is a tool that can help veterans heal from MST and adjust more efficiently to civilian life.

Healing from Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma occurs frequently among women military personnel and is trauma that has been experienced while in the military. MST can damage emotional and physical health if untreated. Treatment for MST can be customized based on how long the trauma occurred and the symptoms present.

If you or a veteran you love is struggling with military sexual trauma (MST), reach out to Solara Mental Health today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our veteran mental health program.

References & Resources
  1. Disabled American Veterans (DAV). Resources: Military Sexual Trauma.
    https://www.dav.org/veterans/resources/military-sexual-trauma-mst/
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Military Sexual Trauma Fact Sheet.
    https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst_general_factsheet.pdf
  3. Lofgreen, Ashton M., Carroll, Kathryn K., Dugan, Sheila A., & Karnik, Niranjan S. (2017). An Overview of Sexual Trauma in the U.S. Military. Focus (American Psychiatric Publication), 15(4): 411–419.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519533/
  4. United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Reports.
    https://www.sapr.mil/reports
  5. Wilson Laura C. (2018). The Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma: A Meta-Analysis. Trauma Violence Abuse,19(5):584-597.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30415636/
  6. Acosta, Joie D., Matthew Chinman, & Amy L. Shearer (2021). Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military: Lessons from RAND Research. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
    https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1318-1.html
  7. Protect Our Defenders. Facts on United States Military Sexual Violence. 2018.
    https://www.protectourdefenders.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/1.-MSA-Fact-Sheet-180209.pdf
  8. A-Train Education. West Virginia: Sexual Trauma in the Military.
    https://www.atrainceu.com/content/4-military-sexual-trauma-mst
  9. Bradshaw, S., Hedges, B., Hill, K., Luckman, H., & Dagenhard-Trainer, P. (2022). Overcoming Sexual Trauma with Equine Therapy. Journal of Veterans Studies, 8(1), 110–118.
    https://journal-veterans-studies.org/articles/10.21061/jvs.v8i1.241/

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