Female Combat Vets at Higher Risk for Mental Disorders, Study Finds

Military service is honorable, but it can also be damaging. Many vets come home from battle with serious physical scars. They also return with mental and emotional scars. For a long time, the mental health status among veterans was not much discussed, and only minimally studied. Today, the vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are being given much more consideration when it comes to their mental health.

Recently, a study conducted by the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego found that female veterans may be more susceptible to psychiatric disorders after combat experience. The study is preliminary, and was small, but the findings are interesting and should inform both further research and the treatment and prevention of mental health disorders in American vets.

The Research

The Navy researchers wanted to continue where earlier studies had left off in dissecting the mental health conditions of combat veterans. Earlier work focused on using self-reporting techniques. In other words, the mental health disorders among vets were measured solely on how many sought treatment. For the more recent work, Navy researchers investigated predictors of mental health in over 1,000 Marines who had seen combat in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Each of the participating Marines had completed a survey that included a variety of demographic information as well as psychiatric information. The researchers also looked at any diagnoses that these combat veterans had received after their tours of duty.

The Results

Previous research using self-reporting methods found that combat deployment does increase the number of psychiatric disorders in a population, which is not surprising. Many vets, both male and female, come home with any number of issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The results of the recent Navy study found the same thing. They saw that 18 percent of the Marines received a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder after combat.

The strongest influence for those who were diagnosed with a disorder was being female. Another predictor was having a traumatic brain injury. Being satisfied with the military leadership meant a reduced likelihood of developing a psychiatric disorder. Several other factors seemed to have some importance, but were not as significant.

Related: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Speeds Aging in Women

One of the most important results of the research is the finding that women seem to be more susceptible to having a mental health diagnosis after combat. It is important, as more and more women join the military every year and make up a big part of military service.

It is necessary, however, to consider other factors before confirming that women are more likely to have a mental illness after combat. The first is the fact that the study was fairly small. To get a better idea of the predictors of psychiatric disorders will require more research with more participants. Another consideration is the fact that women may be more likely to seek out a diagnosis for mental health issues. It is possible that men are more likely to hide their symptoms and feel too ashamed to ask for help.

What’s Next?

The Navy researchers who came up with these findings about mental health and combat vets hope to continue the research to find out what causes psychiatric disorders to develop in veterans. They also want to further investigate the mental health of female veterans in particular. The current study did not include enough female participants to be sure that women really are more susceptible to psychiatric disorders.

Although the results may not be set in stone, they do seem to indicate that women are more vulnerable. As a result, better health care could be implemented for women during military combat and afterward. The Navy researchers suggest that both increased awareness and support networks could help prevent and treat the disorders that are likely to develop because of combat service.

The continuing discussion of and research into mental health among active service members and veterans can only help to improve the conditions for both men and women in the military. While mental health disorders still carry a stigma that sometimes hinders diagnosis and treatment, the awareness that is being brought to light on the situation should be positive for everyone involved.

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