The number of women in the military has doubled in the past decade. According to the Pentagon, about 10 percent of the 2.2 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women.
These women are more likely to be in the line of fire than those serving in previous wars -- and that means they're also at a higher risk of having depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) wanted to see if gender played a role in mental health outcomes after soldiers were exposed to combat-related trauma.
In a recent study, researchers looked at 7,251 veteran responses to different kinds of combat exposure: witnessing killing, sexual trauma, killing in war, and injury. It found that PTSD rates are the same among male and female vets of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with about 18 percent of both groups screening positive for the disorder.
While both male and female vets had equal chances of having PTSD after exposure to killing, sexual trauma, or witnessing killing, women vets who were physically injured were more likely to have PTSD than men.
The study also found that while female veterans were more likely to suffer from depression, their male counterparts were more likely to abuse alcohol.
Lead author Shira Maguen, a psychologist at SFVAMC and an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF, said the study suggests that doctors should get a detailed assessment of specific traumatic combat experiences because "not all types of combat may be equally experienced by men and women after they return from deployment."
Though men and women had the same rates of PTSD due to sexual trauma, 12 percent of women actually reported experiencing sexual trauma, compared to less than one percent of men. Previous studies on female veterans show that those with a history of sexual trauma are eight times more likely to suffer from PTSD than other female vets.
Still, what's surprising, said Maguen, is that there are more similarities than differences between male and female PTSD outcomes. She said the the VA needs to do more research on women's health issues, but adds that they're doing an "excellent" job adding women's clinics for this growing population of veterans.
"At the San Francisco VA we have a one-stop-shop model where a woman veteran can come in and get medical care and mental health care and social work all in one visit. So these are particular settings where women can really be evaluated. And if we have studies like this informing us what the highest risk factors are, we can really do a better job of assessing women, and hopefully that will lead to better treatment."