As female participation in the US military grows, the number of female vets with PTSD is increasing. Many causes and symptoms of PTSD are similar in females and males. But insights about PTSD in female vets can help us better understand this devastating health condition and its consequences – both for veterans and the population at large.
What is PTSD?
PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, is a disorder that some people develop after experiencing a dangerous, frightening or traumatic event.
Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. Although we typically think of war veterans as the principal sufferers of PTSD, the disorder also affects civilians. “Non-combat PTSD” can develop in survivors of sexual or physical assault, accidents, natural disasters, terror attacks or other traumatic events.
You can also develop PTSD without having survived a dangerous event. For example, experiences like the death of a loved one can cause PTSD.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PTSD symptoms usually begin within 3 months of experiencing a traumatic incident, but the onset can be much later.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), for a diagnosis of PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least 1 month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
Lots of movies have portrayed the terrible impact of PTSD on people with it as well as those who love them. For example, a simple event can trigger flashback behavior that the PTSD sufferer doesn’t intend.
How common is PTSD in general?
Most people associate PTSD with veterans whose service has caused them to experience war’s horrors. And PTSD is far more common in the veteran population than among people in general.
Statistics from the National Center for PTSD, part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, show the prevalence of both combat and non-combat PTSD:
- 7-8% of the adult population experiences PTSD at some point in their lives
- In any given year, 8MM adults will have PTSD (children also can have PTSD but reliable data is not available)
- Women are twice as likely to suffer PTSD than men (10% vs. 4%)
- Anywhere from 11% to 20% or more of veterans experience PTSD (2MM to 3.6MM presently)
Male vs. female vets with PTSD
Data from the 2017 Census Bureau indicates that there are 18MM veterans in the United States. Of these, 91% are male and 9% are female.
If you combine this information with the Department of Veterans Affairs percentages (11-20% of vets have PTSD), you get approximate measures of PTSD by gender.
Male vets with PTSD:
1.8MM to 3.3MM
Female vets with PTSD:
200,000 to 320,000
These estimates don’t take into account the fact that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men. Regardless of statistics, female vets with PTSD are an important population. They help the medical community understand how PTSD may affect women differently than men.
Why do female vets develop PTSD?
Research reported by The Soldiers Project lists the main causes of PTSD among female veterans as:
- combat operations (11% of Afghanistan/Iraq veterans are female)
- sexual assault
- feelings of isolation
- worries about family back home
One might think that combat-related PTSD among female vets would not be terribly high. Yet the type of urban warfare seen in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought more women into hostile situations, regardless of their role. Women in both combat and support roles are exposed to trauma.
Only 9% of all veterans are female, but 17% of people currently serving in the military are female. Understanding PTSD among female military personnel as well as veterans is a high priority.
Sexual assault and harassment lead to PTSD
Sexual trauma is a key cause of both combat and non-combat PTSD, particularly for women. Among veterans using VA health care:
- 23% of women reported sexual assault while in the military
- 55 % of women and 38% of men reported sexual harassment when in the military
Military Sexual Trauma, which includes rape, unwanted touching and other forms of sexual harassment, has its own acronym in the Department of Veteran Affairs: MST. Understanding PTSD related to MST can help further awareness of how sexual abuse can lead to PTSD in the population at large.
Sadly, women overall face higher risks of sexual assault, neglect and abuse during childhood, domestic violence, and death of a loved one. In fact, an average of 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted at some point during her life.
Moreover, sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD than many other types of traumatic events. Events of the past two years have brought the issue of sexual assault inside and outside the military to light. The next step is to help victims of sexual assault cope with their PTSD symptoms.
Health effects of PTSD
In addition to the psychological toll of repeated flashback, jumpiness and so on, research has documented several ongoing health issues among PTSD sufferers:
- Anxiety and depression (about half of people diagnosed with PTSD also have a major depressive disorder)
- Addiction and substance abuse (affect 30-40% of PTSD sufferers)
- Possible cardiovascular disease (data are mixed)
Health effects specific to female vets with PTSD
A 2018 report issued by Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Women Veterans: The Journey Ahead highlights pregnancy risks for female veterans.
Female vets with active PTSD have higher rates of pre-term delivery (9.2%) than those with no history of PTSD (7.4%). This complication leads to longer hospital stays and more postpartum issues as well.
Female vets with PTSD also develop pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes more often than women in the general population. Both of these conditions can be life-threatening for both mother and child.
Diagnosing and treating PTSD
If you think that you or someone you love may have PTSD, a confidential way to begin assessment is by taking this online quiz:
A psychotherapist can render a formal diagnosis. And the good news is that several different forms of treatment have demonstrated good results for people with PTSD.
Principal treatments involve psychotherapy and/or medication. You can learn more about the basics of PTSD treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Female vets with PTSD help us treat all female PTSD sufferers
Much of what we know about PTSD comes from work with veterans. In the decades since the Vietnam War, society has grown in acceptance that trauma can have drastic, long-lasting mental and physical consequences. Learnings about PTSD among veterans of both genders are improving PTSD diagnosis and treatment for everyone, regardless of combat status.
Understanding the complications of female vets with PTSD is raising awareness of this condition in other sectors. Although female vets are an easily-defined population, their PTSD treatment offers insights for women generally. Continued emphasis on helping women veterans overcome PTSD will benefit all women.
Another reason to thank veterans for their service. 🎖️
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