Treating Sexual Trauma in the Military, Part 2
This is part two of a series by Deidre Jones-Soll, LCSW, BCD, MAC about treating active duty military women who’ve experienced sexual trauma. Read part 1 here.
Through the renewals of Congress over the past several years, the National Defense Authorization Act has strengthened and improved the response to sexual assault in the military. The Department of Defense has also made many policy changes. In 2017, the DoD’s annual report on sexual assault in the military noted a 10% increase, occurring across all four military branches. In an agency-wide memo regarding sexual assault awareness and prevention, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis stated, “By its nature, sexual assault is one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military.” I would add that military sexual trauma can shatter one’s sense of safety, and devastate one’s sense of self—self-esteem, trust, and ability to sustain working relationships and operational performance.
Women join the military for a variety of reasons not unlike the reasons given by men. They hope to serve and protect our country, begin a better way of life, receive educational benefits, increase their income, obtain health insurance, develop career growth and development, and become leaders and mentors for others.
Women in the military face the challenges in having to balance their personal life goals and expectations with their military service requirements/demands and growth. Women often ask themselves, is there really a place for me in the military organization? The general question comes with more specific questions: 1) Can a woman have it all and serve in the military successfully? 2) Is it possible to balance one’s military career (considering the many demands and expectations of the military) with a healthy personal life including family and children? 3) What does it mean to be a woman in today’s military? And 4) what are some of the unique needs, challenges, and multiple roles a woman must manage while serving in the military?
As noted earlier, help/treatment is available to bring about recovery from military sexual trauma. Recovery is a process that takes time, support, and collaborative efforts involving mental health professionals and specialized training and treatment programs. It also involves command leadership support, legal guidance/advocacy and resources, and peer—and family/friend—encouragement—all to help women recover and regain control of their personal lives. Sexual trauma is treated in a variety of ways, including exposure therapy, individual therapy, and holistic care.
In the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) of treatment, members receive trauma-focused treatment that is patient-centered and gender-specific for victims of military sexual trauma and co-occurring mental health problems like depression, drug and alcohol use, and anxiety disorders. Some of our members report physical violence and sexual assault prior to joining the military as well as childhood trauma due to neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Members who attend the IOP are also enrolled in a Partial Hospitalization Program (receiving a full day of treatment Monday-Friday) with the support of a multidisciplinary team. The team usual consists of professionals in psychiatry, psychology, clinical social work, nursing, art therapists, and others to meet the co-occurring needs of our members.
The IOP is a voluntary program in which 6 to 8 service members meet 3 days per weekly (9 hours per week) over a 4 week period. We utilize a combination of evidence-based practices, including Group Psychotherapy, Cognitive Processing techniques, Narrative-Timeline (storytelling), Body Mapping, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy tools and skills to help our members heal by sharing their stories. Service Members receive psycho-education on the neurobiology of trauma, trauma reactions, impact of co-occurring disorders, trauma-focused therapy, cognitive process-oriented therapy, and motivational therapy.
Art therapy has proven effective in helping women to engage the mind and body. The sensory experience of art-making engages the right brain, providing an alternative way to access feelings and emotions and reintegrate fragmented parts of themselves. Art therapy helps women to understand their identity and express feelings and ideas that words alone cannot. By giving visual and voice dimensions to their experiences, women can illustrate and redefine their personal stores. We also use holistic therapeutic modalities including mindfulness, meditation, yoga, writing therapy, music, and grounding tools to promote recovery, positive growth, and wellness.
The many restorative benefits of working in a closed group include the creating of a healing, safe, and supportive space; confidentiality; fostering openness, trust, and honest discussion; nonjudgement and then promotion of acceptance, self-care, and healthy boundaries; building self-esteem, and dignity and respect for self and others.
The mission of the Intensive Outpatient Program is to provide intensive group therapy to active-duty female service members from all branches of the military, including trauma-focused therapy for survivors of sexual trauma or physical and emotional abuse and assault. The IOP also offers treatment for co-occurring disorders such as alcohol and substance use. This therapeutic community enables women regain control of their lives by meeting treatment and recovery goals. In the safety and nurturance of this IOP group setting, women can achieve individual growth toward recovery and self-care, healthy family-friend relationships, and improved work performance.
Sexual assault in the military impacts all of us—victims, families, communities, society, and of course, our military readiness. Most of all, it can have a lasting impact on the victim for years to come.
Treatment works, but there is truly a need for much more: discussion, training, sharing of ideas, and recognition.
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.