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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
November/December 2008, Volume 16, Number 6 

Women in the Military: Overcoming Challenges

The face of the military is changing. About 11 percent of the U.S. forces currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. By 2010, 14 percent of all veterans in the United States will be women.

A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) and captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, discussed these numbers and their implications in a recent SAMHSA-sponsored teleconference.

photo of a military woman taking an oath

She was joined by Bryanne Moore, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Command, and Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Proponency of Behavioral Health at the Office of the U.S. Army Surgeon General.

Military Sexual Trauma

Compounding trauma that may be caused by wartime experiences, such as seeing a dead body, handling remains, or knowing someone who was injured or killed, women in the military also may experience sexual trauma—including harassment, assault, rape, or other violent acts.

“As women’s roles change, military sexual trauma has increased,” Ms. Power said. “Often, it is not reported.” National surveys suggest that 13 to 30 percent of women veterans have experienced rape during their military service, she said.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the effects of sexual trauma can include depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, intrusive thoughts, and other nonspecific health problems. Dr. Ritchie reported that suicide by women in military units has increased since 2006, and depression is one of the top three problems for women veterans treated by the VA.

“Women service members may not report sexual trauma for fear of retribution, embarrassment, lack of career advancement, or dishonorable discharge,” Ms. Power said.

Perceptions of Women

Ms. Moore, who has served in the military for 7 years with deployments to Iraq, discussed other possible reasons why women may hesitate to come forward after suffering sexual trauma or other mental health problems.

photo of three military women dressed in fatigues

“Women are still seen as weak, whiny, hormonal, and incapable,” she said, noting that some of her male counterparts have described women with these terms. Women may hide a mental health issue for fear that revealing it could further the perception that they cannot handle their military duties.

Ms. Moore had a mental health diagnosis after entering the military, but she was advised by a commanding officer to keep the situation out of her record if it would not affect her work.

She complied with this recommendation because, she said, “I’m already seen as a lower-level soldier because I’m a woman.”

Working for Change

The Army and Federal agencies, including SAMHSA, the VA, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), are making efforts to reach military women and men with mental health problems.

“We now have more than 200 mental health providers in Iraq working toward prevention of mental health problems and helping people who do experience them get immediate treatment,” Dr. Ritchie said.

Ms. Power related some of SAMHSA’s collaborative efforts to help. SAMHSA participated in the DoD Mental Health Task Force (see SAMHSA News online, January/February 2008).

“There is a lot of activity focusing on the efforts to address sexual trauma and to combat overall discrimination in the military regarding mental health treatment,” she said.

According to Ms. Power, the task force vision for DoD includes:

  • Fostering a culture of support for psychological health
  • Providing a full continuum of care to service members and their families
  • Allocating resources to prevention, early intervention, and treatment
  • Ensuring that leaders at all levels support mental health services.

Ms. Power said, “Mental health is as important as physical health. We’re seeing a very high level of involvement in the military regarding this issue.”

For more information about SAMHSA’s collaborative efforts to help military women and men, see SAMHSA News online, September/October 2008.

  Women, Addiction, & Recovery  
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Conference Coverage & Related Stories

  Returning Veterans  
image of a woman in the military

Women in the Military: Overcoming Challenges

From mental health issues to sexual harassment—what’s being done to help.

image of a military person silhouetted in front of the American flag

Veterans & Major Depressive Episode: New Data

Last year, more than 300,000 veterans experienced MDEs.

  Suicide Prevention  
image of 5 cartoon-like characters

New Media Increase Options

Virtual suicide prevention efforts are helping.

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Lifeline Answers One Millionth Call

Milestone for SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

  Training Manuals  
TIP 45 image


This Treatment Improvement Protocol training manual offers basics on successful detox.

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Medication-Assisted Treatment

This Treatment Improvement Protocol training manual discusses treatment for opioid addiction.

  Data on Youth  
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Inhalant Use & Depression

Some adolescents are three times as likely to start using inhalants—find out why.

Mental Health Settings: New Data

Do young people get mental health services at school more often than at specialty treatment centers?

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Out-of-Home Treatment

Effective treatment options for young people.

  Also in This Issue  
logo for SAMHSA's Science and Service Awards

2008 Science & Service Award Winners

For best practices, 29 organizations honored.

Grant Updates

Awards announced.

Staff in the News logo

Advisory Councils

Five new members for SAMHSA’s Advisory Councils.

Treatment Line Gets National Attention

Oprah promotes SAMHSA’s substance abuse treatment line as a resource.

The Voice Awards logo

Voice Award Nominations

You have until March 2009 to cast your vote.

Primary Care Settings

Mental health may improve with treatment location.

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