Treating Sexual Trauma in the Military
This is part one of a series by Deidre Jones-Soll, LCSW, BCD, MAC about treating active duty military women who’ve experienced sexual trauma.
For the past 3 years, while working on a military instillation, I recognized there was a growing need for intensive mental health or behavioral health services specifically designed to address the unique needs and concerns of women who have suffered sexual assault or harassment while serving on active duty in the military. More and more women were coming into our clinic seeking help as they were finding the courage to tell their trauma stories which is a major part of the healing process in trauma recovery. The lack of effective trauma treatment to address this growing problem for women serving in the military was unacceptable and motivated me to take action. These active duty female service members needed a safe and confidential community to address sexual trauma and related health and wellness issues. I began researching effective treatment modalities and theories, leading planning meetings and discussions, and attending continuing education workshops and training programs on Women’s Mental Health, Trauma/Sexual Trauma. Finally, I wrote the curriculum and won approval from leadership to begin a Sexual Trauma Recovery Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) on a military installation beginning February 2016.
Since then, we have provided care to 110 women who are Active Duty Female Service Members. In the IOP, we work primarily with those who have suffered significant trauma, often during childhood, but also military-service-related sexual trauma, physical violence, and harassment. Current research studies (e.g. those from the Department of Defense, the VA, and The Battered Women’s Justice Project) identify military sexual assault as a pervasive problem.
Sexual assault can have a devastating impact on a service member’s military career. Both men and women are victims of sexual assault perpetrated by military service members. Among women who join the military at younger ages, those who had already experienced sexual assault appear to be at increased risk of sexual assault while in the military. Sexual assault survivors experience a myriad of long-term health and mental health consequences, including post-traumatic stress, mood instability, avoidance, and self-destructive behaviors like drug and alcohol use/abuse, other addictions, and self-injury.
Treatment is available through the Veterans Administration and other residential and IOP programs within the military as well as in the private sector. A great deal of work needs to be done, in education and awareness training of military sexual trauma, in coordinating services and resources, in increasing more specialized treatment programs for women.
The Department of Veterans Affairs defines military sexual trauma as any unwanted sexual activity, whether being threatened or pressured into sexual activity, sexual contact without consent, forced sex, being touched in ways that make one feel uncomfortable, repeated comments about one’s body or sexual activity, or being threatened or incurring unwanted sexual advances.
Left untreated, military sexual trauma and its consequences impact all aspects of a woman’s life, both concurrently and years later, manifesting as depression, chronic pain, drug and/or alcohol use, poor sleeping habits, low self-esteem and confidence, anger, rage, difficulty performing duties, an inability to trust and connect with family and friends, an inability to engage in healthy sexual activity, and feelings of isolation, insecurity, and indecisiveness. Service members often report fears of professional retaliation and being ostracized by their peers. They fear not only that their careers and promotions could be jeopardized, they feel unsafe.
While there has been some progress in reporting and treatment of military sexual trauma, there needs to be systemic and cultural changes if sexual assault is to be eliminated in the military.
Do you work with military women? What has been your experience of the spike in sexual trauma, and how have you helped your clients to recover?
Deidre A. Jones-Soll, LCSW, BCD, and MAC has 25 years of clinical social work experience, and currently provides mental health care services to active duty military members on a military installation. She also supervises social worker student interns working on their MSW building social work values and “hands on” clinical training promoting growth and development for the next group of social workers in military and civilian workplaces.