Impacts of Military Sexual Trauma on Veterans

Published On: October 14, 2022|Categories: PTSD, Trauma|

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs defines military sexual trauma (MST) as any sexual activity in which a servicemember is involved without their consent during military service. MST can happen on or off base, either during war or peacetime and regardless of whether the servicemember is on duty. Perpetrators of MST may include individuals of all genders, military personnel or civilians, superiors or subordinates in the chain of command, strangers, friends or intimate partners.

Some examples of situations that fall under the military sexual trauma umbrella include: 

  • Being pressured, threatened, bribed or coerced into sexual acts
  • Sexual contact or activities that occurred without consent, including while asleep or intoxicated
  • Being overpowered or physically forced to have sex
  • Sexual touching or grabbing during “hazing” experiences
  • Uncomfortable comments about your body or sexuality
  • Unwanted sexual advances 

Unfortunately, people of all ages, genders, racial/ethnic backgrounds and branches of service have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault in the military. According to data from the VA, about 1-in-3 women and 1-in-50 men respond “yes” when asked by a VA health care provider if they’ve experienced MST.

Long-term effects of military sexual trauma

As with any instance of sexual trauma or abuse, MST can have a lasting impact on the victim’s mental health and well-being. 

The long-term effects of sexual assault and harassment in the military may vary depending on the unique individual and their reaction to what they’ve experienced. Some examples might include the following:

  • Isolation from family, friends and loved ones
  • Guilt, shame or low self-esteem
  • Alcohol or drug abuse as a way to escape from negative feelings
  • Disturbing memories and/or nightmares
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Depression or numbness
  • Anger or irritability
  • Sleep issues

The effects of MST will not necessarily go away without intervention. If ignored, symptoms can linger for months or years after sexual abuse occurred. 

Some people who experience MST recover without significant mental health challenges. In others, the effects of MST may affect their physical and mental health, daily life, functioning and relationships for months or years to come. In some cases, individuals may go on to develop or be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

PTSD isn’t the only diagnosis that can result from MST, however. Medical record data from VA health care beneficiaries indicate that other diagnoses most frequently associated with MST are depression and other mood disorders as well as substance use disorders.

People who have experienced previous trauma, whose MST occurred repeatedly over time rather than in one single event or who did not have a support system during that time are at higher risk of a strong reaction.

After experiencing any type of traumatic event, changes in mood or behavior are to be expected and can last for weeks. However, post-traumatic symptoms that persist for more than a month may suggest that professional treatment is needed.

Why would someone hesitate to seek help after MST?

Stigma and fear of backlash can leave survivors of MST feeling alone and unable to seek support. Sexual assault or harassment is difficult for anyone to process, but especially in the military setting, where your fellow servicemembers are supposed to protect and defend you. 

Scenarios that could make seeking help after MST extra challenging or complicated could include:

  • The perpetrator(s) is someone you must continue living and/or working with, or possibly even relying on for essentials like healthcare, food or safety
  • You’re concerned about damaging the bonds in your unit if you were to speak up about what happened
  • You’re living far away from your family, friends or other sources of support
  • You’re worried about being seen as weak
  • You believe that others would lose respect for you or even blame you if you confessed
  • You feel that seeking help might hurt your chances for promotion or career progression

Regardless of the reasoning for a veteran’s discomfort around seeking treatment for MST, no one needs to suffer in silence. Care for physical and mental health conditions stemming from MST is completely confidential and free, per the VA.

Recovering from military sexual trauma

Our team at Pyramid Military Therapy & Recovery Programs is equipped to meet the unique needs of individuals who have served, and how MST can affect a veteran’s life, daily functioning, mental health and relationships over the long term. Our flexible programming meets each client where they are, and focuses on healing the whole person from underlying trauma and moral injury, rather than simply reducing unwanted symptoms.

Reach out today to get well among veteran peers in a supportive, non-judgemental, familial environment.

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