What is Military Sexual Trauma?
MST refers to a service member’s experience with sexual assault or sexual harassment occurring at any point during his or her military service. The following are all examples of MST:
- Forced or coerced sexual encounters
- Sexual encounters perpetrated while a person is unwilling or unable to give consent
- Inappropriate sexual jokes or lewd remarks
- Unwanted physical contact that makes you uncomfortable
- Repeated sexual advances
- Offers of something in exchange for sexual favors
How common is MST?
An estimated 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system report experiencing MST. It is important to note that by percentage women are at greater risk of MST, but nearly 40% of veterans who disclose MST to VA are men.
What are the symptoms associated with MST?
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological health issues – Sexual assault survivors in both the military and civilian populations show a higher lifetime rate of PTSD for both men (65 percent) and women (49.5 percent). VA medical record data indicates that in addition to PTSD, the diagnoses most frequently associated with MST among users of VA health care are depression and other mood disorders, and substance use disorders.
- Difficulty with relationships and social functioning – Veterans who have experienced MST may report difficulties with interpersonal relationships. In some cases, the abuse triggers trust issues, problems engaging in social activities and possible difficulties with sexual dysfunction. It is also common to experience emotional challenges with guilt, shame and anger over the trauma. Many survivors also report difficulties finding or maintaining work after their military service.
- Physical health problems – MST survivors may suffer from sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight or eating problems, or gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, they may experience difficulty with attention, concentration and memory and have trouble staying focused or frequently finding their mind wandering.
- Substance abuse – Drug and/or alcohol abuse has a higher correlation among sexual assault survivors than among non-victims. Studies have found drug use—including marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances—is up to 10 times as high for victims of sexual assault.
- Additional medical and mental health conditions – There is a strong association with MST survivors in developing certain specific medical conditions (such as obesity or weight loss, chronic pulmonary disease, liver disease and hypothyroidism) and mental health conditions (such as bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder).
Does MST have to control the veteran?
There are ways to cope with MST that empower a veteran to take control of the symptoms resulting from their trauma. Some of those coping mechanisms are outlined below:
- Professional help – There is no shame in asking for help with your symptoms associated with MST or PTSD, it does not make you weak. It takes strength to ask for help. Seeking a counselor or therapist who specializes in sexual trauma can be a good first step to healing. If you have experienced MST during your military career, you can also find a DAV benefits expert here to discuss filing a claim with VA. All DAV’s benefits experts are veterans themselves—some are also survivors of MST—and they can help walk you through the claims process with compassion and discretion. Also, every VA facility has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. This person is your advocate and can help you find and access VA services and programs, state and federal benefits, and community resources.
- Lifestyle changes – Interacting with other trauma survivors and other veterans who have experience with MST, exercising, eating healthy, volunteering, avoiding drugs and alcohol, spending more time with loved ones, and practicing optimism are all helpful.
- Mindfulness – To be mindful is to be aware of and concentrate on the present. It can be breathing exercises, or focusing on a singular thing in your present, like the taste of a piece of chocolate, or coffee—but intensely focusing on that one thing.
- Practicing optimism – Hunt for the good stuff in your life, the things that create joy and a sense of peace or happiness. At some point in your day, reflect on the good things that have happened to you in the last 24 hours. It can be a small as finding your favorite ink pen or celebrating the birth of a child—whatever brings you joy.
- Peer groups – Finding others who have experienced MST can help you feel comfortable talking about MST and working through the intense emotions associated with it.
- Emotional support animals – Many veterans who struggle with MST have adopted emotional support animals, usually dogs who help veterans feel more at ease and comfortable in situations that may otherwise cause them undue stress.
- Exploring the options – There are many different ways to regain control, those that work for you may not work for someone else, and those that work for someone else may not work for you. Exploring the different options and being open minded to new and potential solutions is helpful.
What resources are available for a veteran struggling with MST?
How can I get help for MST through the VA?
- Speak with your existing VA health care provider
- Contact the MST Coordinator or the Women Veterans Program Manager at your local VA Medical Center
- Contact your local Vet Center
- Call 1-800-827-1000, VA’s general benefit information hotline