Even one combat experience puts female veterans at risk for behavioral health problems.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by experiencing shocking, frightening, or dangerous events, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Obviously, soldiers in combat situations often come face to face with traumatic and violent situations — including witnessing deaths and injuries and fearing for their own lives — that raise the risk of short-term or chronic PTSD.
Of course, not every military veteran develops the condition, which is marked by symptoms such as anxiety and depression, feeling emotionally numb or full of rage, and seemingly re-experiencing traumas through intrusive memories and dreams. But PTSD is a significant problem for many former soldiers and, without treatment, it can negatively impact all areas of life, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD.
Researchers have long linked combat exposure to PTSD in male veterans. However, despite the fact about 10 percent of U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan were women, the consequences of their exposure to combat haven’t received as much investigation — until now. A recent large-scale study of women vets revealed exposure to combat significantly raises the odds of PTSD and the related problem of alcohol abuse.
Research sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the service experiences of 42,397 active duty, National Guard, and reservist women soldiers who served in Afghanistan or Iraq between 2008 and 2011. The research team analyzed questionnaire data the Department of Defense compiles when all military personnel return from deployment.
The results, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, showed women veterans experienced high rates of assaults, injuries, and wounds during their service in combat zones. In all, 20 percent of the female vets said they had been in danger of being killed; 16 percent of the active duty vets and 12 percent of the reservist and National Guard women reported encountering dead bodies or seeing people killed.
The research found, for the first time, a significant relationship between these combat exposures and behavioral health problems. The magnitude of the combat exposure link to PTSD was striking. The women vets who had three or more exposures to combat were almost 21 times more likely to have PTSD than their counterparts who had no combat experiences.
However, it took only one single combat experience to increase the likelihood a female vet would suffer from one or more post-deployment behavioral health problems, according to the researchers. In all, 10 percent of the women vets who were screened for PTSD had symptoms of the condition, and 10 percent were also found to have depression.
What’s more, almost one in four of the former female soldiers who had experienced combat were at-risk drinkers, raising the odds of developing alcohol-related problems and alcoholism. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines at-risk drinking for women as consuming more than three drinks in one day or seven drinks in one week, or binge drinking.
"Our findings suggest that injuries, assaults, and combat exposures experienced by women during deployment may have an additive, negative effect on their post-deployment behavioral health," said Brandeis University behavioral health scientist Rachel Sayko Adams, PhD, lead author of the study. "Ongoing force wide screening for behavioral health problems should be coupled with development and evaluation of programs to improve the psychological wellbeing of the Armed Forces."
The bottom line, according to the researchers, is that even a single exposure to a traumatic combat-related event should not be overlooked or discounted. Women veterans, their friends, families, and doctors need to be aware of potential consequences of the experience and help female vets get help for signs and symptoms of PTSD, depression, and excessive alcohol use.
The VA National Center for PTSD offers self-help and coping tips for veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms and also provides information on finding a therapist for the condition and seeking help in a crisis.
For more information on post-traumatic stress disorder, visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s website.
April 01, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA