What Is Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and How to Treat It
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a unique form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that includes sexual harassment or assault experienced during military service. Any person can experience military sexual trauma, regardless of their gender. Sexual harassment can be defined as repeated, unwanted verbal or physical sexual contact and includes any of the following:
- Frequent comments about a person’s body
- Promises of favored treatment in exchange for sexual favors
- Physical force, threats or negative consequences
- Repeated comments about a person’s sexual activities
- Being touched in a sexual way/a way that makes a person uncomfortable
- Being pressured or forced into sexual activities
- Sexual encounters while an individual is unwilling or unable to give consent
- Being physically forced to have sex
According to the 2016 Department of Defense SAPR Annual Report, 8,600 women and 6,300 men who were active duty service members reported being sexually assaulted. Most victims (over 1 in 4 women and 1 in 3 men) were assaulted by someone in their chain of command.
Furthermore, an estimated 1 in 4 female veterans and 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system reported experiencing MST. In addition, almost 40% of veterans who report MST to VA are men.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Symptoms
Like any other type of trauma, MST can seriously affect a person’s physical and mental health, causing anxiety attacks, depression, and substance abuse if untreated. In addition, unprocessed military sexual trauma can cause a variety of relationship and/or family problemsas well as social functioning difficulties in general. Veterans who have experienced MST commonly report problems with interpersonal relationships.
Other most common symptoms of MST include:
- Feelings of depression
- Disturbing memories and/or nightmares
- Problems with guilt, shame, humiliation, and anger over the trauma
- Trust issues
- Difficulties with sexual dysfunction
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Sleep problems
- Substance abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Eating disorders
- Physical health complaints (chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, obesity or weight loss).
MST Stigma and Reporting Rates
It is estimated that 77% of military sexual assaults go unreported. Most common reasons for not reporting sexual assaults include stigma around MST, fear that the process would be unfair, and/or fear that nothing would be done.
Many victims of military sexual assaults do not report sexual abuse because they fear that their command and coworkers would not believe them. Also, many of them do not report sexual abuse due to worry about the impact of the report(s) on their career, fear of retaliation, and/or because of perceived stigma about seeking mental health treatment after experiencing military sexual trauma. In addition, reporting MST sometimes results in an individual being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, which may result in further stigmatization.
MST Treatment Options
If you have experienced MST during your military career, seek the professional help of a counselor or therapist who specializes in sexual trauma. An important step in overcoming your MST symptoms and healing is seeking professional mental health help.
Comprehensive MST treatment includes assessing for PTSD, major depression, as well as for substance abuse. Also, MST education, eliminating the MST stigma, and building strong support systems are important parts of MST management.
Exposure Therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The most commonly practiced PTSD therapy approach is Exposure Therapy. This is a behavioral technique that involves gradually exposing a person with PTSD to anxiety-provoking situations until these situations cause less fear and anxiety.
Exposure therapy has been shown to effectively address the symptoms of PTSD and other anxiety disorders. However, exposure to the situations, whether it is ‘in vivo’ or in real-world situations, needs to be a gradual, step-by-step process that is non-harming to a patient. It is vital to reassure the patient that the exposure can be interrupted at any point if they start feeling uncomfortable.
As a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), exposure therapy targets avoidant behaviors that a person learned in response to frightening and anxiety-provoking memories and thoughts. However, the ultimate goal of exposure therapy is eliminating avoidance behavior and increasing quality of life by actively confronting feared thoughts, emotions, and situations and helping a patient understand that anxiety will lessen on its own.
Nevertheless, there are other ways to cope with Military Sexual Trauma (MST) that can strengthen you to take control of your symptoms resulting from military sexual trauma.
- Building a Support System
- Talking to your loved ones
- Interacting with other trauma survivors (who could be helpful aids in helping you cope with your MST symptoms)
- Lifestyle Changes
- Mindfulness Meditation*
*Mindfulness means being aware of and focused on the present. Intensely focusing on the present can help you alleviate anxiety symptoms, boost your self-esteem, and improve your memory and concentration. In addition, mindfulness can help fight negative thoughts and increase your resilience.
Finally, spending time with friends and family, engaging in pleasurable activities, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and eating healthy are all helpful strategies in managing MST symptoms.
Filippo M. Forni, LMFT-LAADC
New Directions for Veterans (NDVETS) – West Los Angeles