History of military sexual trauma 'common' in older women veterans, VA says

Photo credit Photo by SGT. Gruart/National Archives.

It's common for older women veterans to have a history of military sexual trauma, and for those who survived it to report multiple health conditions, a recent Department of Veterans Affairs study shows. 

In what VA says is the first study to focus on MST in an older population, researchers said MST is often not considered during care for older women.

Military sexual trauma is an important issue affecting the health and well-being of women veterans across the lifespan, not just limited to younger women and recent service eras,” study leader Dr. Carolyn Gibson of the San Francisco VA Health Care System and the University of California said in a statement. “A history of MST is common among older women veterans and may contribute to mental health concerns and age-related health issues. This highlights the importance of trauma-informed care approaches for women of all ages.”

National VA data shows that about one in every four women veterans or service members have experienced MST, and studies, where participants were allowed to remain anonymous, suggest that number could be even higher. 

Living with the experience of MST can lead to other health concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, obesity and chronic pain, according to VA. 

The study focused on data from more than 70,000 women veterans 55 or older who received care at VA from 2005 to 2015. Women not receiving care at VA were not included in the study. 

Researchers found that 13 percent, or about 9,100 women veterans "screened positive" for MST and those that had it were "more likely to have a wide variety of medical conditions, especially mental health diagnoses." 

Women with MST: 

  • were 7 times more likely to have PTSD compared to women without;
  • twice as likely to have depression and suicidal thoughts;
  • have higher rates of sleep disorders and pain;
  • have a greater risk of anxiety, substance use disorder and obesity;
  • have a greater risk of sleep apnea. 

Those health concerns are similar to younger women veterans who experienced MST, the study showed, though it was the first study to make a connection between sleep apnea and MST. 

Another study, this one a survey of women veterans 45-64 is currently in the works to provide more data on MST, including more specific information on sexual harassment and assault. 

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.