Veteran suicide has become an undeniable outcome of military service in the United States, with more than 20 vets taking their own lives every day. Many of those deaths are women.
Reported on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet, the suicide rate for women vets decreased between 2015 and 2016, but women vets are still 250% more likely to commit suicide than civilians.
Physically, the challenges service members face may be equal, but mentally and emotionally, they are much different between men and women. Experts attribute many suicides involving women veterans to military sexual trauma (MST).
According to the study, “Military Sexual Trauma and Suicide Mortality,” between 2007 and 2011, 5,991,080 men and 360,774 women were screened for military sexual trauma by the VA. Only 1.1% of the men reported experiencing sexual trauma, while more than a fifth of the women said they were sexually traumatized during their service.
“Military sexual trauma represents a clinical indicator for suicide prevention in the Veterans Health Administration,” wrote the team of doctors and researchers who conducted the study. “Results suggest the importance of continued assessments regarding military sexual trauma and suicide risks and of collaboration between military sexual trauma–related programs and suicide prevention efforts. Moreover, military sexual trauma should be considered in suicide prevention strategies even among individuals without documented psychiatric morbidity.”
There are more than 2 million women veterans in the United States. They make up the fastest growing veteran population, yet many still live without the same network of support their male counterparts have relied on for more than two centuries.
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According to the Military Times, a majority of women veterans were deployed during the past 18 years. When they return home from service, many of those women report feeling unwelcome in public places and the veterans halls built to help them socialize. There are limited services and care systems for women veterans, both in the non-profit sector and government. Meanwhile, the challenges and health risks those women face are arguably greater.
A lack of social support is one contributor to feelings of helplessness and suicide. Still, it does not outweigh the impact MST has on wellbeing.
As Rand reports, MST has been identified as the biggest factor in the increase in suicides involving women veterans, even greater that combat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Former RAND researcher Rajeev Ramchand, now with the Cohen Veterans Network, interviewed responders on the Veterans Crisis hotline who had heard many different women veterans voice their pain and frustration.
“Late at night, they would get calls from women who were just overwhelmed,” Ramchand said. “The first thing we heard a lot about was military sexual trauma. A lot of women veterans were calling in because they had experienced military sexual trauma. And (for these callers) something recently had happened that had triggered thoughts of that experience.”
If there’s a way to reduce the number of suicides among our women veterans, it surely lies in reducing the occurences of MST.
“Ultimately, (that) will have an impact on female veteran suicide rates,” Ramchand said.
Learn more in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.