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2009 HSR&D National Meeting Abstract

National Meeting 2009

1038 — Female Veterans Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: Stress-Related Behaviors and Coping Mechanisms

Mattocks K (VA Connecticut Healthcare System), Sindelar J (Yale University), Haskell S (VA Connecticut Healthcare System), Brandt C (VA Connecticut Healthcare System)

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have engendered a growing population of female veterans seeking health care through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). These women are more likely to have had exposure to combat than women veterans of previous conflicts, and may experience stress-induced mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In addition to wartime stress, female veterans suffer from stress related to reentry into society, e.g. stress from work and family. Stress overload puts veterans at risk for stress-associated coping behaviors, including smoking, drinking, drug use, and overeating. Though much is known about stress-related experiences among male veterans, little is known about how female veterans experience the stress of re-entry into society after military service. The purpose of this study is to describe women's experiences of stress and stress-associated addictions that occur with war and societal re-entry.

We conducted a series of focus groups with women veterans living in Connecticut. Eligible women veterans were identified using the OEF/OIF roster supplied by the Office of Research and Development of the VHA. Qualitative data were transcribed, coded, and analyzed using rigorous qualitative content analysis techniques.

Female veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported stress-related coping mechanisms that included binge eating, excessive smoking, and occasional drug use. Many expressed frustration that friends and family did not understand what it had been like to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several reported problems with finding a job. Most women expressed that they did not have adequate knowledge or access to health and mental health services aimed specifically towards female veterans.

Women veterans experience many stress-related coping behaviors, including smoking, drinking, drug use, and overeating. These behaviors are exacerbated by a relative lack of social support among family, friends, and the communities in which these women live. It is crucial for VA providers and service managers to provide necessary mental health and social support services to women veterans.

Understanding women veterans’ unique responses to wartime stress is an important step towards developing quality healthcare programs for women veterans seeking care in the VA.

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