A new study has found that women in the military are at no greater risk than men for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) given similar experiences, including combat.
Conducted by Defense and Veterans Affairs researchers, the study involved active-duty troops and veterans who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has more than 200,000 participants.
The new PTSD study included more than 2,300 pairs of men and women who were matched based on an array of variables — including exposure to combat — and followed for about seven years.
“This is the first study to prospectively investigate the development of PTSD in male and female service members who were matched on multiple important characteristics that could explain some of the differences in PTSD, including military sexual trauma,” said Dr. Shira Maguen, a staff psychologist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an associate professor at the UCSF Medical School.
“We found no gender differences in the development of PTSD. Consequently, our focus should be on the types of traumatic experiences that people have been exposed to, rather than any inherent gender differences in the development of PTSD.”
All of the soldiers in the study were free of PTSD at the outset of the research, according to the researchers. All were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once. They completed a baseline survey in 2001-2003, and follow-up surveys in 2004-2006 and 2007-2008.
While female troops in general are less likely to see combat, the researchers selected the study sample so there would be equal numbers of men and women with combat experiences. This was in addition to the pairs of men and women in the study being matched on factors such as age, race, education, marital status, service branch, and military occupation and pay grade.
The researchers also sought to match them on various health characteristics, including alcohol misuse, anxiety, and depression. Another factor the researchers took into account was stressful life events, such as divorce, a violent assault, or the death of a family member.
The matching technique helped ensure like-to-like comparisons, the researchers report. For example, while women soldiers are far more likely than men to experience sexual assault, the study matched men and women on this basis too, ensuring equal numbers of such events in each matched pair. The study also took into account sexual assaults that may have occurred over the follow-up period, during or after military service.
During the course of the study, 6.7 percent of women and 6.1 percent of men developed PTSD — a difference that is not statistically significant, according to the researchers.
For those who did develop PTSD, there was no difference in severity between men and women, the study found.
Maguen points out that these rates of PTSD are lower than the commonly cited rates of 11 to 20 percent among returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because the study excluded men and women who had PTSD at the outset.
“Generally, when studies look at PTSD rates among returning veterans, they look at everyone, regardless of whether they had PTSD in the past from pre-military traumas or prior deployments. Here we were only looking at new cases,” she explained.
In contrast to the new study, past research on civilians has found that women are at higher risk than men for PTSD. The researchers note that past research is not based on comparisons of men and women with similar trauma exposures.
“I do think military women are extremely resilient, but I think the differences in rates in the civilian literature actually have to do with a number of factors, including women having much higher rates of interpersonal traumas, which we know put people at high risk for PTSD,” Maguen said.
The researchers say the findings support Department of Defense efforts to integrate women into combat roles. Gender alone is not an indicator of PTSD risk, they say.
The study was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Source: Veterans Affairs
Photo Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Molly A. Burgess, USN