Military sexual trauma (MST) can not only have a long-term detrimental effect on the physical and mental wellbeing, but also increase the odds of post-deployment homelessness in the military veterans, says the latest study led by Emily Brignone and co, published in JAMA Psychiatry the other day.

While sexual assault of any intensity is deeply disturbing for a person, little has been known until now that it also increased the risk of post-deployment homelessness among the US military veterans. A retrospective study was recently conducted that evaluated the administrative data from a cohort of 60,1892 US veterans who served at Veterans Health Administration (VHA) between 2004-2013. All the veterans were deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq between 2001-2011. The findings of the study revealed a high incidence of homelessness among the veterans within 30 days–5 years after their last deployment. All the veterans used VHA services after parting from the military.

military Sexual assault

The majority of the participants, or the victims of homelessness if put correctly, were white males with an average age of 38.9 years. The rate of homelessness increased as the time of separation from the military increased i.e., 1.6% within 30 days, 4.4% within one year and 9.6% within five years.

The cohort was further evaluated for co-occurring mental health issues and substance abuse but MST positive screen was found to be independently associated with homelessness among the veterans.

The study concluded that MST screening is an important marker to determine the likelihood of homelessness in US veterans, particularly males.

What Is Military Sexual Trauma (MST)?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines military sexual trauma, or MST, as a sexual assault or harassment faced by a veteran during his or her military service.

The MST encompasses any sexual activity involving a service member against his or her will and can be of a myriad of types, such as:

  • Threatening or offensive remarks about a person’s body
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, including touching or groping
  • Persuading a person into sexual activities i.e., with threats of dire consequences or with promises of better result/treatment in exchange for sex
  • Forcing a person into sexual activities

The identity of the perpetrators is not required legally by the VA to register a case of MST.

How Common Is MST?

Sexual trauma is both physically as well as mentally agonizing and is shockingly common in veterans, particularly females. The VA, through its national screening program, makes it a legal requirement for all veterans to see a healthcare provider and undergo MST screening. The data from the VA’s national screening program reveals that every 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men report at least one episode of MST during their military service.

The count just keeps rising. The data from the Department of Defense has reported that the numbers of sexual assault occurrences within the US military continues to rise.

  • More than 95,000 veterans have been sexually assaulted in the US military since 2006.
  • More than 86% of veterans choose to remain silent about the assault.
  • Less than five percent of all sexual assaults are reported.

Short And Long Term Effects of MST

The MST is a serious trauma that can trigger a myriad of responses from the victims. The effects are usually severe and long term and include severe depression, emotional numbness, substance abuse, difficulty with relationships, isolation, physical pain, sexual difficulties and homelessness.

In most of the cases, the MST can be a life-changing event, compelling the victims to seek professional psychological help. Yet, a large number of victims choose to remain silent.

Irrespective of whether the victims choose to speak or remain silent, MST leaves behind a deep scar, the repercussions of which can only be explained by the person that has experienced it.

Fortunately, though, there is treatment for MST. The psychiatric help aims to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with MST.

What Is VA Doing For MST?

The Department of Veterans Affairs takes any offense, including MST, seriously and is committed to ensure an easy access to help. Every VA healthcare facility has a contact person, called the MST Coordinator, who handles all MST-related issues. This person is a knowledgeable resource that can not only guide and provide an access to VA services and programs, but can also share the benefits the state offers to the victims.

Because most of the victims choose not to disclose their painful experience, the VA healthcare providers have been instructed to ask every veteran whether they have experienced MST. The VA ensures that every veteran undergoes periodic MST screening to keep the threat in check. The VA also provides mental and physical health treatments for MST free of charge. For veterans who do not feel comfortable in mixed-gender treatment settings, some VA facilities offer separate programs for both genders.