Female Service Members and Their Mental Health

Female soldier on the ground with a gun
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Aaron Ellerman
By Kate McGraw, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Deployment Health Clinical Center
May 15, 2017

I’ve been working for the military for over 30 years in many different roles. While my gender makes me obviously different from my male counterparts, I’ve never focused on it as a barrier because my parents raised me to do my best, and to accomplish the goals I set in my mind and heart, regardless of my gender.  

Early in my career, I broke into the previously gender-restricted missile operations career field. That experience strongly shaped my perspective, and throughout my career has caused me to think about the challenges for military females.

Years after my missile crew duty was over, I worked as the aerospace psychologist with the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program as the first female jet pilot trainees were integrated into the school. I watched with dismay as some of the same difficult gender dynamics that I’d experienced also unfolded with this newer generation of pioneers. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve treated many female service members who identified in therapy that their primary challenge was longing to thrive and be fully accepted in their unit when they were the only female in the shop.

Recently, I had the honor of participating in the Coming Home Dialogue, a program sponsored by the Naval Academy and George Mason University and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. In a small room, we were six veterans, strangers at the start, but friends when we finished.

We spent two days with trained facilitators exploring and integrating decades of poetry, literature and experiences as we contemplated service, honor, duty, courage, sacrifice and death. We even discussed the enduring challenges females have faced and still face while serving in the military. We agreed there are enormous complexities related to being a female in the military, difficulties most males typically don’t face, and some that most people don’t think about. 

Our female warriors are brave, are dedicated to risking their lives to defend our country, and often juggle a whole lot of other responsibilities at the same time they’re performing their military duties. The problems they face can involve leadership acceptance, childcare, the biological impact of estrogen, societal role expectations, sexual harassment and assault, and ostracism by peers due to gender differences and can directly impact psychological health. Females appear to cope with combat-related stress as well as men, but they are more likely to experience higher rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. They’re also more likely to be treated for depression than men, and appear less likely to endure negative impact from deployment if they experience strong social support pre and post-deployment compared to men.

While psychological health research may show us that over time in some situations women do things differently and respond to events differently than their male counterparts, different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different. Fortunately, we’re making forward progress; some of DoD health research is now focused on how to better understand and help military females with a variety of psychological issues, as well as how we can help the culture better support and respect differences amongst us. We also now have a standing DoD work group dedicated to supporting the mental health needs of women in the military, developed and implemented at the Deployment Health Clinical Center.

What can you do as a clinician to be more supportive to military females who seek treatment?

  • Ask the right questions. Know that gender is likely a factor in unit dynamics, and may be an important aspect of the problem, depending on the patient’s assigned career field. In careers that are predominantly or previously solely male, a female service member may feel isolated, powerless to improve her situation, or may simply need to talk openly about how she feels about her gender in the military environment to a supportive and understanding therapist.
  • Be familiar with resources available for females, especially those with children, or in abusive relationships.  The Family Advocacy Program and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office programs have many services and benefits available to support females who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault. 
  • Make sure you are knowledgeable about other types of support (Inspector General, legal, security forces) in order to help refer your female military patient to the right resources if she’s struggling with unfair treatment, abuse of command, illegal behaviors, ostracism or bullying. 
  • Learn the basics about your role and responsibilities as a health care provider from the relevant DoD Instructions and service guidance for substance use disorders, family advocacy, sexual assault, and equal employment opportunity (EEO), and keep current on your annual re-training. 

The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • I am a retired licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) in Connecticut currently volunteering at the Newington, CT Veteran's Administration Medical Center. While my duties at the VA are non-clinical, and it is my policy to direct what I deem "clinical concerns" to VA staff, I was recently floored when a retired female US sailor matter of factly told me of "status quo" ubiquity, pervasiveness, and upper-level acceptance of female-directed sexual harassment in the USN.

    "That's just how it is," she said.

    I found this difficult to believe, and asked a friend's wife--also a USN retiree--her opinion. Without hesitation she said, "I know there's more publicity about it lately, but believe me, it's way, way worse...way more common than anything you've heard!"

    Can this be true? And what can be done? I feel the attitude espoused in the saying: "nothing's too good for our service-people," falls far short and would be better replaced with "nothing is good enough...!" Our service-people deserve our finest. What can be done?

    I am frustrated and disillusioned.

    Respectfully yours--Ronald Biderman, LADC

    • Hello Ronald

      Thank you for reaching out and for volunteering your time in support of our veterans! 

      Your frustrations and disillusionment are understandable. Here are my thoughts: Every service member has a unique experience during their time of service, and their experience depends on many factors, to include Service branch, specialty occupation, and leadership attitudes of their unit. While sexual harassment and assault are not universal experiences for all women who serve, the risk of sexual assault is greater for women.

      DoD is working hard to research and address gender disparities where they exist, and to determine what can be done to resolve the differences if they are found. DoD has launched a comprehensive campaign to address sexual harassment and assault at all levels of the organization, and has made good progress towards raising awareness and holding personnel accountable. DoD also studies prevention efforts, to identify what works and what doesn't work, to prevent females and males from being sexually assaulted or harassed. In 2013 DoD launched the Sexual Assault Advisory Group to the Psychological Health and Resilience Council, to focus on the mental health needs of males and females who experience sexual assault or harassment, and to make recommendations to resolve gaps when they are identified, to include gaps in services, policy, legislation, or programs. The DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office also works tirelessly to prevent and respond to reports of sexual assault, and have a specific plan in place to address retaliation, ostracism or bullying related to sexual assault, which can be found on their website. You can also find more information and resources in the Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment in the Military section of this site.

      We will continue to work to raise awareness, and to address these concerns, and appreciate your support for our mission.

      -- Dr. Kate McGraw

  • Thank you for your article. I am a female veteran, and I appreciate the sentiment regarding the struggle with depression, ostracism, and sexual assault for us females. My story is one of residual trauma- basically my enlistment time was challenging, but it wasn't until after I became a civilian again when I began to have trouble adapting to civilian life. Without a very supportive family, and the economy the way it is, I had to begin a new chapter in my life by myself to make ends meet, and I began to struggle with depression. It was difficult for me to meet and stay connected with people of value in my life that I could relate to. I got involved with men that eventually became abusive. I had and still have lots of trust issues. I feel emotionally stunted! Now I am a woman in my thirties and others' around me are having children while I am still struggling to make ends meet. I struggle with PTSD and depression, but when I bring it up to those close to me, they don't understand...
    Us military women do have a unique challenge, and it is so important for any human being to have support and love.
    God bless, thank you for sharing.

    • Hello Colleen

      Thank you for your comments, and especially for your service!

      It sounds like you had a very challenging time while you served, but also sounds like you have a lot of strength and resilience. It can be very disappointing to feel misunderstood by those close to you when they haven't shared your military experiences. The VA now has some growing programs just for female veterans in their medical centers, and do provide evidence-based treatment for PTSD and depression delivered by providers who are trained to understand military experience and culture, many of whom have served themselves. The Vet Centers, which are separate from the medical centers, are also a place to go for counseling or support, and most of their staff are veterans. I hope that you find the support and understanding that you are seeking, and thanks for reaching out.

      -- Dr. Kate McGraw

  • "While psychological health research may show us that over time in some situations women do things differently and respond to events differently than their male counterparts, different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different." Key words in this article...plus...always communicating with each individual as an INDIVIDUAL...look at the whole person. Being knowledgeable about the services available is key.
    Thanks for your words.
    Kate

    • Hello Kate

      You make a great point, it’s very important to understand all aspects of the individual who is seeking help, as well as the context of their work and play.  Thanks for your comments and support!

      -- Dr. Kate McGraw

Add new comment

PHCoE welcomes your comments.

Please do not include personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, or e-mail addresses in the body of your comment. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, or any other material deemed inappropriate by site administrators will be removed. Your comments should be in accordance with our full comment policy regulations. Your participation indicates acceptance of these terms.

Please read our full Comment Policy.

You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.
You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.