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Service women often experience unique struggles while serving their country. While female veterans face similar problems as their male counterparts—such as homelessness, suicidal thoughts and attempts, substance abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more—women experience many of these problems more severely than male veterans, often with less support.
In short, female veterans are more likely to have musculoskeletal issues, mental health issues, and substance use disorders than male veterans.1
In this article, you’ll find helpful information about:
According to the United States Department of Defense (DoD), women made up about 16% of the active-duty force and about 9% of veterans in 2017.2 While many sources are clear that women have played a role in U.S. military operations since the Revolutionary War, female presence in the armed services has been on the rise since the 1960s.3
In 1967, lawmakers repealed the ceiling on the percentage of female service members. In 1993, lawmakers repealed all laws prohibiting women from serving in any occupation. In 2013, the DoD rescinded their Direct Ground Combat and Assignment Rule, which stopped many women from seeing active duty or combat.
In 2015, the military was required to open all combat jobs to women with no waivers or exceptions. Women also comprise about 20% of new recruits, with that number continuing to rise.3
Women who are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces struggle with high rates of substance abuse, when compared to both male veterans and female civilians.1 Female veterans struggling with addiction have high rates of other disorders (known as co-occurring disorders) and underlying problems, including:
Women serving in the military are much more likely to experience traumatic events that are non-combat scenarios, as you’ll read below. Experiencing trauma puts anyone at greater risk of developing PTSD. Those who develop PTSD are at greater risk of developing a substance use disorder, likely as a method of self-medicating the negative thoughts and high stress levels associated with the mental health condition.5
Female veterans are much more likely than their male counterparts to experience personal forms of trauma, including:
A study placed the prevalence of traumatic histories—including sexual or physical abuse, domestic violence, military sexual trauma, and others—among female veterans between 81 and 93%.6
Studies regarding sexual assault in civilian populations routinely find that PTSD is the frequent result. About half of women who suffer sexual harassment, assault, or rape report lifetime rates of PTSD.7
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is also a common result of sexual assault, with about one-third of victims reporting MDD in their lives.8 Abusing drugs or alcohol is associated with self-medicating PTSD and MDD in civilian populations, so it makes sense that these issues would be prevalent with service members and veterans, too.
Military sexual trauma (MST) is a specific experience defined by the VA as both sexual harassment and sexual assault in military settings.10 This may include:9
Both men and women have reported experiencing MST from the opposite and the same gender; however, women experience much higher rates of MST, typically from male service members. One study reported that 23% of female veterans using VA healthcare services had experienced at least one sexual assault while serving in the military.10
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) notes that women serving in the military are not always trained for combat even though they are increasingly experiencing combat or hostile situations during their service. This is due to changes in policy and a lack of updates to the types of training they receive.11
Today, women on active duty are:11
More female veterans live in poverty or suffer from homelessness compared to male veterans, which can lead to or worsen PTSD and/or substance use.
Homeless female vets are overrepresented in the homeless population compared to civilian women.
The VA details that women may experience different PTSD symptoms than men. Women with PTSD:13
Both women and men who experience PTSD may develop physical health problems.13
Female veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, when screened by Veterans Affairs (VA) health clinics, were found to abuse several substances like their male counterparts, especially alcohol, prescription sedatives, opioids, and amphetamines. Rates of substance abuse among women vets included:14
Women veterans ages 35 and older were more likely to struggle with substance abuse problems compared to younger veterans.14
In general, women veterans are 5 times more likely to attempt and complete suicide than non-veteran women. Like male veterans or anyone who struggles with addiction, female veterans who abuse drugs or alcohol are at greater risk of attempting and completing suicide.15
Women veterans who struggle with opioid addiction completed suicide at a rate of 98.6 out of 100,000, which is higher than the rate of veterans without a diagnosed addiction.16
Although both veteran and civilian men are more likely to die by suicide compared to women, the rate of female veterans’ suicides is on the rise.
However, the rate of suicide among female veterans using VA services was lower than among female vets who did not make use of this healthcare service. In fact, that rate declined during the same 2001-2014 period by 2.6%.15
Female veterans are more likely to have access to firearms than civilians, which increases their risk of completing suicide. Firearms were used by 40.5% of female veterans who completed suicide compared to 31.1% of civilian women.15
There’s no question that female active duty service members and veterans alike need more resources including better mental and physical health services.
However, the services that currently exist like the VA do help when female veterans who have substance and/or mental health disorders use them.
When receiving treatment, female veterans should be:17
Stress from trauma due to early childhood suffering, domestic or intimate partner abuse, sexual and physical abuse at work, and combat exposure mean that women in the military are at a much higher risk of suffering from PTSD, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and other severe problems that all veterans are at risk of.
While more women are joining the U.S. Armed Forces, the number of women actively touring and the number of female veterans is still small overall.2 This can lead to difficulty finding community, trouble fitting in, and a sense of loneliness that increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
The VA offers many specific services for female veterans, but this is just the beginning. Facilities across the U.S. offer specific programs centered on veterans, addiction, co-occurring disorders, and recovery.
Recovery First offers one such program that has many veterans in recovery on staff and creates group therapy environments comprised of veterans to create safe spaces to relate and convey military-specific trauma.
Women must be supported in their communities, by their families, and by fellow veterans to get the help they need to overcome substance abuse, PTSD, and co-occurring problems.