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What Are The Signs of Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?

Female MST
Signs of military sexual trauma MST can be hidden. (Photo courtesy of veteranstoday.com)

An extremely difficult subject to talk about is the degree of sexual trauma in the military (MST). The most recent data from the U. S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs suggests that about 1 in 10 men suffer MST. For enlisted women, the ratio is doubled, or about 1 in 5. Though MST is categorized as psychological trauma, it results from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while a Veteran was serving on active duty. It is defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in nature.”

MST covers a range of sexual activities.

It includes any sexual activity in which someone is involved against his or her will for implied better treatment or whether pressured or forced into sexual activity for other reasons. It also includes unwanted sexual advances, sexual touching, grabbing, threatening, making offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities.

Please also note the statistics I have quoted are not conclusive because they reflect only those individuals who have sought treatment from the VA. It is impossible to estimate the unreported incidences.

Just like any other military trauma, the consequences of MST are quite serious to those who have experienced it:

  • Strong emotions: feeling depressed, having intense, sudden emotional reactions to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time
  • Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally “flat”, difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness
  • Trouble sleeping: trouble failing or staying asleep, disturbing nightmares
  • Difficulties with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting intoxicated or “high” to cope with memories of emotional reactions; drinking to fall asleep
  • Difficulties with attention, concentration and memory: trouble staying focused, frequently finding one’s mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things
  • Difficulty with things that trigger experiences of sexual trauma; feeling on edge or “jumpy” all the time, difficulty feeling safe; going out of one’s way to avoid reminders of experiences
  • Difficulties in relationships; feeling isolated or disconnected from others, abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures, difficult trusting others
  • Physical health problems; sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight or eating problems; gastrointestinal problems

MST and PTSD are associated

MST is a sensitive topic, but as you can see the symptoms and consequences are devastating and life-dominating. It is an extremely difficult problem to deal with, but it is one that can sabotage emotional health and relationships.

Not only is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with MST, but it is also the diagnosis most frequently associated with MST with those who use the VA Department’s healthcare (other diagnoses are depression, other mood disorders and substance use disorders).

As we deal with injuries from war, including the PTSD of so many veterans, it is also imperative to include support for victims of MST.  It is another area of health that we need to be addressing so veterans may successfully transition to normal lives.

MST and PTSD are part of the complex issues that our veterans have faced due to their military service. It should be treated with as much importance as other traumatic injuries in how we provide compassionate and assertive care to our veterans.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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