Supporting Military Sexual Trauma Victims
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a term used by the Veterans Administration to describe when a veteran or service member has experienced sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment while serving in the military. The victims of MST are often afraid, ashamed, and embarrassed and consequently do not seek help because they fear retribution or are unaware of the resources designed to help them.
Tragically, MST victims are at heightened risk for suicide and are significantly more likely to be treated for mental health disorders, according to a 2016 government study. The study indicated men with a history of MST were 70% more likely to commit suicide, while female MST victims were twice as likely to take their lives.
Identifying Signs of MST
Given these statistics, it is important to know the signs of an MST survivor: nightmares, trouble sleeping or disruptive sleep patterns, hypervigilance, anger, and anxiety, to name a few. Many have repeated and ongoing relationship issues and have no idea how to reach out. Victims are riddled with the deep shame associated with the trauma or the effects and aftermath.
It often takes an MST survivor a long time to seek help to address their trauma because of the stigma and shame some associate with MST. Most often, there is not the expected “cool” war story to associate their pain and PTS with. The MST survivor does not have the hero status associated with those suffering from PTS as a result of combat, which often exacerbates feelings of shame. This often leaves the MST victim isolated from their normal social support group, remaining in the shadows, just trying to survive.
2016 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault
70,000 sexual assaults occurred in 2016 alone
1 in 4 service women and men are assaulted by a person in their chain of command
Only 13% were prosecuted, with only 4% being convicted of a sexual offense
40% of women homeless veterans have faced MST
1,027,810 outpatient visits took place at the VA for MST related care in 2013
The first step in supporting someone who may be experiencing MST is screening, or starting a dialogue with them. Begin by asking if they have experienced MST. Keep in mind the individual may find it difficult to talk about their trauma, so be open, empathetic, and practice active listening.
Once you’ve identified someone who has experienced MST, guide them to the appropriate resources. One such resource, and a good place to start, is to put the individual in contact with a Veteran Administration (VA) MST Coordinator. These professionals are a dedicated resource for those affected by MST and are trained to assist with connecting MST survivors to a myriad of resources. It is critical to know that ANYONE, regardless of type of discharge can get assistance at the VA.
There are also resources outside the Veterans Health Administration available to those who have experienced MST. 5Palms, a partner of the Objective Zero Foundation, provides inpatient treatment to victims of MST at two different locations and uses a combination of individual and group therapies to promote growth and healing.
Through identifying MST survivors and providing support to them, I am confident we can reduce the number of suicides among those who’ve experienced MST. Just as important, connecting MST survivors to resources will help them lead fuller, happier lives.
About the Author
Amy L. is a Veteran of the U.S. Navy, and a survivor of MST and currently is a Product Manager for a software development company. Her journey to justice has led her to volunteer and fundraise for YWCA Women’s Crisis Center, Dress for Success, Inter-Faith Ministries, and Habitat for Humanity. She previously served as YMCA Camp Hyde and Children’s Program Board Chair. Her belief is that for every person seeking help or assistance, there is a person out there to show them the path from trauma to triumph. She has her Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Management & Leadership and is completing her studies as a Certified Victims Advocate. #NotInvisible #MJIA #ObjectiveZero
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