Explaining the High Rate of PTSD
Studies show that PTSD may be more common in women veterans than previously thought. More specifically, women veterans of the Vietnam War suffer significant rates of PTSD even decades after the war had ended showing us that the high rate of PTSD in Vietnam veterans isn’t just in male veterans. In fact, a recent study published in a medical journal known as JAMA Psychiatry, found that as many 1as 1 in 5 women who served in Vietnam experienced PTSD at some point in their lives. And many of these women continue to suffer from PTSD even after the Vietnam War has been long over. Female veterans who served in Vietnam developed PTSD at a higher rate than women who served at bases outside of Vietnam. According to the study released by JAMA Psychiatry, the high rate of PTSD in women Vietnam veterans can be attributed to sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, and job performance pressures. Also, women stationed in Vietnam were directly exposed to war zone experiences whereas women stations outside of Vietnam or in the United States.
It can be extremely tough for both men and women to open up and talk about their PTSD symptoms. It’s common to have a fear of showing weakness, especially in the military’s culture. Studies have shown that this is particularly true for female veterans and is partly due to feeling the need to fit in in a world that is stereotypically a “man’s world.” For example, a woman veteran of the Vietnam War told researchers in the JAMA Psychiatry study that, “at that time in the Women’s Army Corps, we were taught to be ladies first and soldiers second.” Between 5,000 and 7,000 women served in Vietnam, with approximately 80% serving as nurses. Nurses deployed to Vietnam worked 12 hours shifts, six days a week, and were very often responsible for making decisions that quite literally could mean life or death. Despite all of this, women were often thought inferior their male counterparts serving in Vietnam. Many women Vietnam veterans reported feeling as though their professional competence, personal character, and courage were constantly under close scrutiny.
Because of this male dominated military culture, and the feelings of inferiority felt by many women serving in the military, it’s understandable why sexual assault and sexual harassment also factor into the high right of PTSD in women Vietnam veterans. Studies have shown that while both men and women are victims of military sexual trauma, women have a higher risk of being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted.
Although women weren’t allowed to be directly in combat zones during the Vietnam War, that didn’t mean they didn’t see truly horrific scenes of war. A women veteran of the Vietnam War described remembering “the bloody facies and dismembered bodies of soldiers and children covered in 3rd degree burns.” However, upon returning home many women Vietnam veterans reported that they felt forgotten after the war, and felt as though their experiences in Vietnam were considered by others to be less traumatizing than the experiences of the male soldiers. Some women Vietnam veterans explained that just because they didn’t carry a gun, they were still very well aware of what it was like to think about dying. However, they felt that they weren’t recognized as veterans and became reluctant to seek help upon returning home from the war.
Treatment for PTSD in Women Veterans
Given all the evidence of high rates of PTSD in women veterans and in particular, women Vietnam veterans, the VA needs to be aware of how PTSD might affect women differently from men in order to provide effective treatment. Unfortunately, studies regarding PTSD in veterans have often failed to consider the role that gender plays. While both men and women report the same symptoms of PTSD, some symptoms are more common to women veterans than men. Women tend to internalize their problems and blame themselves causing depression and becoming withdrawn. As such, women are more likely to report symptoms such as feeling jumpy, having trouble feeling emotions, and avoiding things that remind them of their trauma. On the other hand, men tend to externalize their problems and react with anger and hostility. Additionally, women veterans face unique problems associated with PTSD. For example, men are more likely to have substance abuse disorders related to their PTSD, while women usually are more likely to have mood and anxiety disorders related to PTSD.
In response to the growing number of women veterans, the VA has developed specific programs to treat women with PTSD. This includes the Women Veterans Health Care Program and the Center for Women Veterans. Also, each VA hospital has a Women Veterans Program Manager who is responsible for administering programs designed specifically for women veterans.