Original Research

Female Veterans’ Experiences With VHA Treatment for Military Sexual Trauma

Provider validation and support for females’ experiences as well as a range of therapies are essential treatments for female veterans with military sexual trauma.

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Females are the fastest growing population to seek care at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).1 Based on a 2014 study examining prevalence of military sexual trauma (MST), it is estimated that about one-third of females in the military screen positive for MST, and the rates are higher for younger veterans.2 Military sexual trauma includes both rape and any sexual activity that occurred without consent; offensive sexual remarks or advances can also represent MST. The issue of MST, therefore, is an important one to address adequately, especially for female veterans who are screened through the VHA system.

Since 1992, the VHA has been required to provide services for MST, defined as “sexual harassment that is threatening in character or physical assault of a sexual nature that occurred while the victim was in the military.”3 Despite this mandate, it has taken many years for all VHA hospitals to adopt recommended screening tools to identify survivors of MST and give them proper resources. Only half of VHA hospitals adopted screening 6 years after the policy change.4 In addition, the environment in which the survivors receive MST care may trigger posttraumatic stress symptoms as many of the other patients seeking care at the VHA hospital resemble the perpetrators.5 Thus, up to half of females who report a history of MST do not receive care for their MST through the VHA.6

Having a history of MST significantly increases the risks of developing mental health disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and suicidal ideation.2 This group also has overall decreased quality of life (QOL). Female veterans have increased sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction, which is heightened with a history of MST.7 Addressing MST requires treatment of all aspects of life affected by MST, such as mental health, sexual function, and QOL. The quality of treatment for MST through VHA hospitals deserves attention and likely still requires improvement with better incorporation of the patient’s perspective.

Qualitative research allows for incorporation of the patient’s perspective and is useful for exploring new ideas and themes.8 Current qualitative research using individual interviews of MST survivors focuses more on mental health treatment modalities through the VHA system and how resources are used within the system.9,10 While it is important to understand the quantity of these resources, their quality also should be explored. Research has identified unique gender-specific concerns such as female-only mental health groups.10 However, there has been less focus on how to improve current therapies and the treatment modalities (regardless of whether it is a community service or at the VHA system) females find most helpful. There is a gap in understanding the patient’s perspective and assessment of current MST treatments as well as the unmet needs both within and outside of the VHA system. Therefore, the purpose of this study is 2-fold: (1) examine the utilization of VHA services for MST, as well as outside services, through focusgroup sessions; and (2) to offer specific recommendations for improving MST treatment for female veterans from the patient’s perspective.


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