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Military Sexual Trauma

Sexual assault is a crime. It is defined as intentional sexual contact, characterized by the use of force, physical threat, or abuse of authority, or when the victim does not or cannot consent. The Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, refers to sexual assault experienced during military service as military sexual trauma, or MST.

A person may respond in a variety of ways to MST. Many individuals recover without professional help, and others generally function well in their life, but continue to experience some level of difficulty or have strong reactions in some situations. For other people, the experience of MST can have a significant effect on their mental and physical health, even years after the event. Factors that can influence the type, severity, and duration of mental health difficulties include:

  • Prior history of trauma
  • Types of responses received from others at the time of the MST
  • Whether the MST happened once or was repeated over time
  • Race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other cultural variables

Some enduring difficulties that a survivor of MST may experience include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Having intense, sudden emotional reactions to things
  • Feeling angry or irritable all the time
  • Feeling numb or emotionally "flat"
  • Difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Disturbing nightmares
  • Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory
  • Problems with alcohol or other drugs
  • Difficulty feeling safe
  • Feeling on edge or "jumpy" all the time
  • Going out of their way to avoid reminders of their experience
  • Feeling isolated or disconnected from others
  • Involvement in abusive relationships
  • Trouble with employers or authority figures
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Physical health problems, including sexual difficulties, chronic pain, weight or appetite problems, and digestive problems

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is commonly associated with MST, but it is not the only mental health disorder that can result from MST. Depression and substance use disorders are examples of other mental health conditions often associated with MST.