Conference Coverage

For some MST survivors, VA hospitals can trigger PTSD

Alternative treatment settings could be ‘easier access point’



– Veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma during their service face unique challenges in their treatment and recovery. They are often reluctant to report their experiences – and understandably so.

Dr. Niranjan Karnik

“Military sexual assault represents a huge violation of that trust and safety. That’s what makes it so toxic and hard for participants to [come] forward, because they’re accused of breaking cohesion of their unit and breaking morale, and yet they have been mistreated,” Niranjan Karnik, MD, PhD, associate dean for community behavioral health at Rush Medical College, Chicago, said in an interview.

Dr. Karnik moderated a session on the prevalence and treatment of military sexual assault at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs treats many survivors of sexual assault, not all of them feel comfortable in that environment. “A VA hospital has a quasi-military feel to it, and that’s a reflection of what it is and the people who are there. That can be an inhibition – and can even be a trigger for [PTSD] symptoms,” Dr. Karnik said.

Survivors may also worry about being labeled, or about adverse entries going into their official record and how that could affect them in the future. “I don’t think there are [VA] policies that put them at risk, but they can perceive that,” Dr. Karnik said. The issue is a stark contrast to veterans who are suffering from combat-related trauma.

“When a combat trauma survivor goes to the VA, they feel protected because their colleagues are there. With military sexual trauma, because of that violation of trust from their peers, it can really exacerbate things,” Dr. Karnik said.

Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as the Road Home* Program at Rush Hospital, which has a few military accoutrements but more closely resembles a civilian center. “It can be an easier access point. The VA is taking care of a large majority of patients. We are a boutique program for the vets who can’t or feel unable to go through the VA program,” Dr. Karnik said.

Overall, 52.5% of women and 8.9% of men in the military report sexual harassment, and 23.6% of women and 1.9% of men report being sexually assaulted. That amounts to 14,900 service members, 8,600 women, and 6,300 men who were assaulted in 2016, according to Neeral K. Sheth, DO, assistant professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College, who also presented at the session. The frequency of assault is higher among LGBTQ individuals, and African American men and women are more likely to experience sexual harassment.

There are options for treatment of military sexual trauma (MST). The 3-week Road Home intensive outpatient treatment program at Rush Hospital combines group and individual cognitive-processing therapy, which is a cognitive-behavioral therapy that has been shown to improve PTSD resulting from MST. The program places combat trauma and MST trauma patients into separate cohorts, each containing individual and group components. Individual sessions closely follow a manualized protocol, while group sessions offer an opportunity to practice cognitive-processing therapy skills.

The team adapted the program to MST treatment by incorporating dialectical-behavioral therapy skills modules in the first week of the program, and implemented one-on-one skills consultation by request throughout the program.

An analysis of 191 subjects participating in 19 cohorts (12 combat, 9 MST cohorts) showed a 92% completion rate, which was similar, regardless of gender or cohort type. Both cohorts had significant reductions in PTSD severity as measured by the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5, and depression symptoms as measured by the Patient Health Questionnaire–9.

Another program, Families OverComing Under Stress, can also be adapted to MST. It is designed to build resiliency and wellness within families dealing with trauma or loss. It incorporates family assessment, psychoeducation tailored to the needs of the entire family, family-level resilience skills, and a narrative component.

An important element is the identification and management of stress reminders – triggers that remind the individual of a trauma and may cause a sudden shift in mood or behavior. A family member’s knowledge that the survivor is experiencing a stress reminder can reduce misunderstandings or unhelpful interpretations of behavior.

In fact, family considerations are often what bring veterans in for help in the first place, according to Dr. Karnik. He or she may be concerned about behavioral problems in a child, which the VA cannot address because its federal funding dictates a sole focus on the veteran. “We will take care of the whole family,” Dr. Karnik said. “Often that’s the entry point, and that allows us to do some engagement with the veteran, and things start to get uncovered.”

Dr. Karnik has no relevant financial disclosures.

*CORRECTION, 5/21/2019

Next Article: