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Galovski TE, Street AE, Creech S, Lehavot K, Kelly UA, Yano EM. State of the Knowledge of VA Military Sexual Trauma Research. Journal of general internal medicine. 2022 Sep 1; 37(Suppl 3):825-832.
Despite substantial efforts to counter sexual assault and harassment in the military, both remain persistent in the Armed Services. In February 2021, President Biden directed the U.S. Department of Defense to establish a 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military (IRC) to assess the department's efforts and make actionable recommendations. As servicemembers discharge from the military, effects of military sexual trauma (MST) are often seen in the Veterans Health Administration (VA). In response to an IRC inquiry about VA MST research, we organized an overview on prevalence, adverse consequences, and evidence-based treatments targeting the sequelae of MST. Women are significantly more likely to experience MST than their male counterparts. Other groups with low societal and institutional power (e.g., lower rank) are also at increased risk. Although not all MST survivors experience long-term adverse consequences, for many, they can be significant, chronic, and enduring and span mental and physical health outcomes, as well as cumulative impairments in functioning. Adverse consequences of MST come with commonalities shared with sexual trauma in other settings (e.g., interpersonal betrayal, victim-blaming) as well as unique aspects of the military context, where experiences of interpersonal betrayal may be compounded by perceptions of institutional betrayal (e.g., fear of reprisal or ostracism, having to work/live alongside a perpetrator). MST's most common mental health impact is posttraumatic stress disorder, which rarely occurs in isolation, and may coincide with major depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and increased suicidality. Physical health impacts include greater chronic disease burden (e.g., hypertension), and impaired reproductive health and sexual functioning. Advances in treatment include evidence-based psychotherapies and novel approaches relying on mind-body interventions and peer support. Nonetheless, much work is needed to enhance detection, access, care, and support or even the best interventions will not be effective.