The election of the highest number of women into the U.S. Senate is a harbinger of change to come in public policy affecting all of us. They will govern alongside one of the largest numbers of women elected to public office and they will work with an increasing number of female top military leaders in our armed forces.
And with this growing influence of women, we have an opportunity to make significant progress in addressing the mental-health problems of our female veterans. This Veterans Day, as we thank, recognize and honor our veterans, we must address the hard realities that many female veterans struggle with.
Of particular concern is the alarming rate of female veteran suicide. According to a recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, since 2001, the age-adjusted rate of suicide among male veterans has increased 30.5 percent. In comparison, the age-adjusted rate of suicide among female veterans has increased 85.2 percent. And among veteran women ages 18 to 29, the risk of suicide is 12 times the rate of nonveteran women.
It’s clear that gender-specific interventions are needed to support our female veterans. Our new female leadership in this country must respond to the challenges facing female service members and veterans.
One approach is to enact new laws. A bill introduced this year by U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley of California, called the Female Veterans Suicide Prevention bill, would require the VA to identify mental-health and suicide-prevention programs that are most effective for female veterans and disseminate the guidance to providers within the VA. This is a good step. In addition, better access to trauma-focused care is needed because women’s trauma groups at the VA are woefully understaffed and underfunded.
We also need to better understand how women experience military service. Often, the mental-health and substance-abuse problems female veterans suffer stem from the trauma of military sexual assault, in addition to the trauma of warfare. In 2014, about 20,300 military service members (approximately 10,600 men and 9,600 women) were sexually assaulted, a rate unchanged from 2010. And women’s experiences are different. Sixty-two percent of women who reported a sexual assault faced retaliation from superiors and commanders. A third of victims are discharged after reporting, on average within seven months of making a report. In 2015, of cases (for men and women) where the military could take action, only 20 percent were prosecuted and just 9 percent of offenders were convicted of a sex offense.
Women who serve in the military are strong, courageous, trailblazing women. Yet many don’t identify as veterans because they did not serve in combat roles and/or were socialized to defer to their husbands’ or commanders’ service as more important than their own. As a result, many don’t enroll for well-deserved benefits from the Veterans Health Administration.
Our military can lead the way in how our society supports its families. The military is a mirror of our larger society but also a model for us to follow in pursuit of our best self. One place to start is to ensure gender-specific and gender/ethnic-specific screening for mental-health and substance-use problems, as well as gender-focused employment training and education support during veterans’ transition to civilian life. We also must support our service members by recognizing their unique roles as parents and by giving them necessary time for bonding and nurturing with newborns and young children.
As the military and the VA continue to broaden their gender-specific policies in how they support women, they offer all of us a vision for a future in which all people are truly treated equally. With the growing diversity represented in our elected and military leaders, we are prepared to reach our potential more than ever in our history.
Elisa Borah is an associate research professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. She conducts research to improve programs and services for the military, veterans and their families.