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Servicewomen who experience sexual trauma in military twice as likely to develop PTSD

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A study of the experiences of former servicewomen in the British military has revealed that those who suffer sexual trauma are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to those who do not experience such trauma.

One in five women surveyed by veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress reported being the victim of sexual harassment and 1 in 20 of a sexual assault during their military career. The findings, published in the BMJ Military Health Journal, indicate a high prevalence of military adversity – 22.5% experienced sexual harassment, 5.1% sexual assault, 22.7% emotional bullying and 3.3% physical assault. Those women physically assaulted were four times more likely to develop PTSD compared to those who do experience it.

Younger women, those who held an officer rank during service, and those who reported having a combat or combat support role during service were most at risk of military adversity.

As well as the risk of exposure to combat-related trauma, servicewomen can face additional adversities during deployment that can have a serious and long-lasting impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Sexual harassment was significantly associated with physical somatization (where the mental distress causes physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue), sexual assault with alcohol difficulties, and emotional bullying with common mental health difficulties, low social support, and loneliness.

The study is the first of its kind in the UK to explore the prevalence of sexual harassment, sexual assault, emotional bullying and physical assault experienced by female veterans during their military service. The data was taken from a national cohort of 750 former servicewomen, most over the age of 50, who are engaged with the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Association.

Lead author of the study Laura Hendrikx, researcher at Combat Stress, said: “While most female veterans had positive experiences during their military career, it is shocking to see the prevalence of sexual and physical assault, sexual harassment and bullying that a significant minority experience. This can have a long-lasting impact, and many of the women continue to struggle with their mental health after service has ended.

“At Combat Stress, we offer veterans the opportunity to receive psychological treatment online where they are not interacting with other veterans. We hope this will make female veterans feel comfortable in seeking support. We also offer women the opportunity to connect to other female veterans who may have experienced similar adverse experiences during their military career.”

Brig (retd) Fiona Gardner CBE, Vice President of the WRAC Association, said: "This report makes for difficult reading as we confront the issues that some women faced in their past military service. The Women's Royal Army Corps Association is proud that a number of our members felt able to contribute to the research by reporting the impact that their service career has had on their lives.”

Co-author Dr Victoria Williamson from King’s College London said: “The experiences of women who serve in the UK Armed Forces have so far received less research attention. This study addresses this gap by highlighting that a notable number of female veterans experience adversity during military service which may have significant implications for their mental health.”