Military Sexual Assault victims face higher risks of PTSD & suicide

Military service members who have suffered sexual assault and trauma are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems that may increase their risk of suicide.

According to data from 2002 – 2008 for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, 4 out of 10 service members who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST) suffer from post-traumatic stress. That number is about 4 times higher compared to service members who have served on active duty.

“If you have experienced military sexual trauma, it’s 52% of the time you’re going to get PTSD if you’re a man, and 51% of the time you’re going to get PTSD if you’re a woman,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel. “If you screen positive for military sexual trauma, you have a higher incident rate of mental health condition…If you’ve been sexually assaulted, you’re 74% likely to have a mental condition.”

Aside from PTSD, survivors of military sexual trauma often suffer from depressive, anxiety, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar, and psychotic disorders, according to Dr. Margaret Bell, Director of Education & Training, National Military Sexual Trauma Support Team at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mental health problems have continued to plague former Private First Class Jessica Kenyon, who was raped eight years ago after she joined the military as an Apache crew chief.

“I currently suffer from severe depression, bouts of insomnia, debilitating memories, thoughts, triggers of all sorts, anger, chattering in my head, constant anxiety to the point that I am forced to use all my focus to appear normal, which hinders my abilities to read, write, have a conversation, remember much of anything in the short-term,” Kenyon testified before the subcommittee on Feb. 26th. “This level of keeping my head above water is where I have found what passes for a level of peace. While I do hope to improve it, it is a very hard road, and some days I’m not able to maintain my composure and my husband and loved ones bear the brunt of it. I have to live with that guilt everyday.”

For some survivors of military sexual assault, the psychological trauma and pain could become unbearable, leading them to attempt suicide.

“Studies and VA administrative data show that sexual trauma is associated with suicide attempts as well as death by suicide,” Bell confirmed.

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day, of which only 12 stem from combat-related stress, according to retired Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah Arbogast.

Arbogast said he was drugged and raped by his former Marine supervisor – a Staff Sergeant – while he was on active duty. Despite obtaining audio recording of the Staff Sergeant’s confession to the rape, Arbogast said his attacker received only a dishonorable conduct discharge but never served any jail time for the crime.

The “never-ending” stigmatization, ostracism, PTSD, and lack of mental health support drove Arbogast to attempt suicide by shooting himself with a .9 millimeter handgun. Although Arbogast survived, the spinal cord injury from the attempted suicide left him a paraplegic.

“Choosing death was my way of taking responsibility for my circumstances. I simply haven’t found the resources to cope,” said Arbogast. “I felt my death would spare my wife, daughter, and myself the dishonor the rape brought upon us. This should send a clear statement of just how bad things can get in the lives of sexual assault survivors when they feel no hope and are not being offered the appropriate clinical support needed for them and their families.”

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