What You Should Know if You are a Military Sexual Trauma Survivor
Both women and men report Military Sexual Trauma (MST) during their time of service, which can range from sexual harassment to violent sexual assault. According to the Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, during Fiscal Year 2018 it is estimated 20,500 service members (13,000 women and 7,500 men) experienced MST.
April 2020 marks the 19th Anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It’s an opportunity for us to shine a light on this pervasive problem as well as understand its lasting effects on survivors, family, and community. Common responses to MST may include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and PTSD, which all have a direct impact on relationships with friends, extended family, intimate partners, and children.
In the article “Trauma and the Military Family” from Social Work Today, Michelle D. Sherman explores three key problems, which may exist for survivors and their family members.
Due to social anxiety resulting from a traumatic experience, survivors may avoid large group activities such as celebrations and family gatherings as well as going to crowded places like the shopping mall or a sports stadium. Partners, but especially children, may feel hurt, confused, and disappointed by a parent who avoids shared family experiences or attending a school event such as an athletic game.
Survivors may also have difficulty processing their pain and appropriately expressing deep emotions such as anger and shame. Continual irritability and potentially volatile behavior may erode trust and open communication within a family. Children may not understand how to get their needs for safety and care met from their traumatized parent.
In order to cope with traumatic and painful memories, survivors of MST may feel a sense of numbness and avoid emotional and physical intimacy with family members. A survivor parent may be uncomfortable and distant with playful children wanting hugs and to crawl into their laps. In addition, a survivor may feel overwhelmed by the touch of an intimate partner and their desire for physical closeness.
MST is a deeply painful experience; however, there is hope and healing on the path of recovery. Healing and personal care may include professional counseling, MST peer support groups, mindfulness training, exercise, art therapy, lifestyle changes, and emotional support animals. Moreover, since MST has such a profound impact on all close relationships it’s important when seeking treatment for oneself to also consider how to include the whole family unit in the process of healing. Educating family members about MST can have a positive therapeutic effect on relationships.
Veterans need to know that the VA offers free treatment and a variety of services for any physical or mental health conditions, which are connected to MST. A Veteran is not required to have any documentation or disability compensation rating related to an MST experience. More importantly, some Veterans receive this free MST-related care even if they are not eligible for any other VA health benefits.
Help for Military Sexual Trauma
Online VA Mental Health Resources for Military Sexual Trauma
Local VA Medical Center’s MST Coordinator
Local Vet Center or the 24-hour call center 1-877-927-8387
Call the Veteran’s Crisis Line if you are experiencing a mental health crisis 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1
Call VA’s general information line 1-800-827-1000