Results of a 3-year longitudinal study of 2665 female National Guard soldiers began in 2008 of their mental health status before and after their deployment to Iraq provides new evidence that women have more than twice the risk of developing combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their male counterparts, 18.7% vs. 8.7%. Women soldiers, with the same level of combat exposure, are also much less likely than men to feel prepared for combat (14.3% vs. 32.2%) or to take advantage of unit cohesion, which are the two most important protective factors against PTSD.
When we investigated the reasons for this we found men felt much more prepared for combat than women, and they were also much more likely to feel they had the support of their unit than women.—Anna Kline, Ph.D. Principal Investigator, Department of Veterans Affairs–New Jersey Health Care System, East Orange
The results of this study, presented May 17 at the American Psychiatric Association 2011 Annual Meeting, confirm previous studies among the general population, which have shown a higher prevalence of PTSD from all causes among women compared with men. What made this study among servicewomen possible was the higher percentage of female soldiers in combat zones, which in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom reached a high of 14% of total deployed forces.
According to the researchers, these findings may be more accurate because the study was conducted in anonymity. This factor alone may have improved the reliability of findings, as asking sensitive questions about mental health and substance use among identifiable servicemen and women has been shown to produce less that candid responses.
"The military now has integrated gender-based basic training so men and women do prepare together. However, it is possible that even if they get exactly the same training, their perceptions [of training] could be very different. It is also possible that training is geared more towards the strengths of men, so they feel more prepared to handle the rigors of combat. These are areas that need further investigation," said Dr. Kline.