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Servicewomen who experience sexual trauma in the British military are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder

A study of the experiences of former servicewomen in the British military has revealed that those who suffer sexual trauma are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to those who do not experience the trauma.

One in five women surveyed by veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress reported being the victim of sexual harassment and 1 in 20 of a sexual assault during their military career. The findings, published in the BMJ Military Health Journal, indicate a high prevalence of military adversity – 22.5% experienced sexual harassment, 5.1% sexual assault, 22.7% emotional bullying and 3.3% physical assault. Those physically assaulted were four times more likely to develop PTSD.

Younger women, those who held an officer rank during service, and those who reported having a combat or combat support role during service were most at risk of military adversity.

As well as the risk of exposure to combat-related trauma, servicewomen can face additional adversities during deployment that can have a serious and long-lasting impact on their mental health and wellbeing. While all types of adversity were significantly associated with probable PTSD, sexual harassment was significantly associated with physical somatization (where the mental distress causes physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue), sexual assault with alcohol difficulties, and emotional bullying with common mental health difficulties, low social support, and loneliness.

The majority of the women who participated in the study were aged above 60. Many of those who experienced sexual or physical assault, bullying or harassment in the military are still struggling with the impact it had on their mental health.

The study is the first of its kind in the UK to explore the prevalence of sexual harassment, sexual assault, emotional bullying and physical assault experienced by female veterans during their military service. The data was taken from a national cohort of 750 former servicewomen engaged with the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Association.

Lead author of the study Laura Hendrikx, researcher at Combat Stress, said:

“While most female veterans had positive experiences during their military career, it is shocking to see the prevalence of sexual and physical assault, sexual harassment and bullying that a significant minority experience. This can have a long-lasting impact, and many of the women continue to struggle with their mental health after service has ended.

“At Combat Stress, we offer veterans the opportunity to receive psychological treatment online where they are not interacting with other veterans. We hope this will make female veterans feel comfortable in seeking support. We also offer women the opportunity to connect to other female veterans who may have experienced similar adverse experiences during their military career.”

Brig (retd) Fiona Gardner CBE, Vice President of the WRAC Association, said:

“This report makes for difficult reading as we confront the issues that some women faced in their past military service. The Women’s Royal Army Corps Association is proud that a number of our members felt able to contribute to the research by reporting the impact that their service career has had on their lives.

“The WRAC Association has a strong membership of women who have served in the British Army in both the WRAC and the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the majority of whom enjoyed and reflect positively on their service careers. They stand shoulder to shoulder with those who had a negative experience. We recognise that there has been significant change within the British military since our Corps was disbanded in 1992. As a membership charity, we will continue to work to support women who served through our national branch network, benevolent fund, and partnership working to raise awareness of female veteran issues.” 

Co-author Dr Victoria Williamson from King’s College London said:

“The experiences of women who serve in the UK Armed Forces have so far received less research attention. This study addresses this gap by highlighting that a notable number of female veterans experience adversity during military service which may have significant implications for their mental health.” 

Research paper: Adversity during military service: the impact of military sexual trauma, emotional bullying and physical assault on the mental health and well-being of women veterans 10.1136/bmjmilitary-2021-001948

Lead author Laura Hendrikx is available for interview. Please contact the Combat Stress Press Office on 01372 587165 or email nicola.hudson@combatstress.org.uk.

WRAC Association Life Vice President Col (retd) Ali Brown OBE is also available for interview. Please contact WRAC Association on 0300 400 1992 or email COO@wraca.org.uk.

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