The unique needs of female veterans

Ella Rhodes reports from a keynote by Professor Dominic Murphy at BPS Conference 2021.

Professor Dominic Murphy, Head of Research at charity Combat Stress, and President of the UK Psychological Trauma Society, spoke about an issue very close to his heart – the unique and understudied needs of female veterans. 

Since 2003, Murphy and his colleagues have been working on an epidemiological survey of mental health in veterans. This has involved three phases and 12,000 veterans at each phase of the study. Male veterans tend to come out most at risk; however, Murphy had wondered whether comparing female veterans to male veterans, rather than to females in the general population, was missing their unique needs and characteristics.

Women make up around 11 per cent of the military population. Women were only allowed to join all branches of the military in 2018 and combat areas in 2016. Until 1991, women in the military who became pregnant were made to leave the service.

Murphy worked with a woman who had left the service 10 years prior to their meeting, and struggled with two traumas. While working in Bosnia she gave food to a young boy outside the gates of her compound, but he soon disappeared. She asked around and was told he may have been targeted due to taking food from the British military. She also witnessed a helicopter crash while working as ground crew. In the chaos that followed she was lost in the darkness for a long time. Murphy said she found it extremely difficult to seek support – because her traumas did not come from direct combat, she felt she was somehow not allowed to receive support. 

Recently, Murphy partnered with the Women’s Royal Army Corps to carry out an online survey of 750 women veterans. He and his colleagues collected information towards the end of 2020 on demographics, military factors including veterans’ length of service, when they left the armed forces, and their final rank before leaving, adversity and challenges they had faced, wellbeing and mental health. 

The majority of participants were over 60, and a quarter had left the military early – or before reaching four years of continuous service. Almost 30 per cent reported four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), many reported high military adversity including physical harassment, and 10 per cent reported having low social support. 

Nearly 30 per cent of participants had anxiety and depression, 11 per cent had experienced trauma, and Murphy found lower rates of alcohol use than expected. The rate of PTSD and common mental health issues was far higher in the female veterans than expected when compared with male veterans and the general population

Murphy also found that experiencing more ACEs, common mental health difficulties, and physical health issues were all related to having PTSD. Female veterans were more likely to have had experience of ACEs than the UK general population – those with more ACEs were more likely to have been a lower rank, be an early service leaver, and have experienced adversity in the military. 

Many women felt they were treated differently in the military due to having childcare responsibilities. Some felt that sexist assumptions were made about them, and that they had to work even harder to achieve the same recognition as their male colleagues. Some felt they were made to leave the military due to having children, and after their service some felt less comfortable attending veteran events. Some had difficulty establishing a social life and transitioning to civilian life in general. 

In the survey, veterans were asked about any barriers they had experienced when seeking mental health support – 61 answered and Murphy examined their answers with thematic analysis. Some of the themes were a feeling of mental health stigma, a lack of understanding from professionals, feeling as if they were not ‘allowed’ to experience difficulties because they were not involved in combat, feeling services were designed for men, and those in the LGBT+ community felt discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.

Murphy is currently working on phase two of this work, which will explore the specific traumas women have faced in the military and the experiences of LGBT+ veterans in more depth.

- Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

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