How PTSD Research Can Help America’s Women And Veterans

A female medic pictured on patrol with the 12th Mechanized Brigade Reconnaissance Force, an elite unit that operates in Helmand, Afghanistan. (Credit: UK Ministry of Defence)

On Thursday, the World Health Organization released data confirming what many activists already knew: that violence against women is a global epidemic, one that will hurt one-third of women around the world. One aspect of the problem, buried in the 50-page report, is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental affliction that’s all-too-familiar to our nation’s veterans — and one that we could be doing much more to address.

The most common understanding of PTSD focuses on its devastating impacts on our veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. While it is important to understand that veterans are disproportionately impacted by the disorder, fewer people are aware that medical research has linked domestic and sexual violence to PTSD, and, as the WHO report notes, comparatively little research has investigated PTSD caused by domestic and sexual violence specifically.

Trauma comes in many forms, including the trauma of assault by an intimate partner, stranger, or acquaintance, but pop culture has focused more on the trauma of war-time violence rather than trauma that many of the one in four American women who experience domestic and sexual violence.

The impacts of PTSD include a constellation of physical and mental health disorders—including depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and an increased risk of suicide. Yet PTSD remains a relatively little-studied mental health disorder, particularly in the context of its relationship to violence against women.

Funding for research on PTSD is hence both a veteran’s and a women’s issue — and particularly a female veteran’s issue. Higher levels of funding for longitudinal studies on survivors of sexual and domestic violence could yield important insights into how PTSD impacts veterans, including veterans who were sexually assaulted during their service. In light of the military’s current struggle to address alarmingly high rates of sexual assault among its ranks, PTSD, veteran’s mental health, and violence against women are even more clearly linked. Greater funding for research on PTSD, both to study its causes and its treatment, could have profound and positive effects for women and veterans alike.

Kendall Bills is the Special Assistant to the Center for American Progress' External Affairs team.