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Sexual Trauma Haunts Many Female Vets

Study found 1 in 7 from Iraq, Afghanistan who sought medical care were victims

TUESDAY, Oct. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Shedding light on the challenges facing women in the military, a new study shows that more than one in seven female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking VA medical care reported experiencing sexual trauma during their service.

Veterans who reported sexual trauma, such as rape and threatening sexual harassment, were three times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"These mental health conditions are getting recognized, diagnosed and treated," said study co-author Joanne Pavao, a researcher with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in California.

Pavao and her colleagues analyzed the records of 89,960 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought medical care in the VA health-care system between Oct. 1, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2006. They were expected to present their findings Tuesday in San Diego at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting.

A total of 1,849 women -- 14.5 percent -- reported experiencing sexual trauma during their service; 471 men -- 0.6 percent -- said they'd experienced sexual trauma.

A study released in 2007 found that 22 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans reported sexual trauma in VA health-care surveys conducted in 2003. That study looked at veterans of all types, not just from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The new study found that these men and women were three times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness than those who didn't report experiencing sexual trauma.

Among women who reported experiencing sexual trauma, 76 percent were diagnosed with a mental condition, compared to 47 percent of other female veterans. The rates were similar in men.

According to the study, the most common mental health conditions among the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders (which cause stress and other problems during certain situations), and drug addiction or alcoholism. All were more common in men and women who reported sexual trauma; post-traumatic stress disorder was much more common in women than men in that group.

It's not clear where the sexual trauma occurred. "It's sexual trauma that occurred during active military duty," Pavao said. "It could have occurred at any point during the service history of these men and women."

All veterans who seek health care within the VA system are screened for sexual trauma, Pavao said. "When this is detected, they're offered free health care for all conditions that the clinicians determine to be related to military sexual trauma. This is part of the VA's large-scale efforts to treat these conditions in a timely way."

If they get treatment, many women who experienced sexual trauma can recover, said Edna B. Foa, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who studies sexual violence.

About 20 percent of women who are raped in the general population develop post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. "Even if they don't meet the criteria of the disorder, many of them will have symptoms that will cause them distress, difficulties having sexual relationships, etc....," she said. "Having a sexual trauma is serious."

More information

Learn more about sexual trauma in the military from the VA.

SOURCES: Joanne Pavao, M.P.H., researcher, National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Calif.; Edna B. Foa, Ph.D., professor, psychology and psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Oct. 28, 2008, presentation, American Public Health Association annual meeting, San Diego

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