A new study of veterans reveals how gender may influence the link between military exposure and post-deployment well-being. The findings suggest that men and women may experience and react differently to deployment stress.
While previous research has shown an association between the development of mental health issues, particularly PTSD, and decreased functioning and satisfaction with family and work for veterans, most studies have not considered gender as a variable nor the role of particular deployment stressors.
“Our study illustrates the complex interplay between specific military exposures, mental health, and subsequent post deployment well-being between the genders,” said lead author Brian Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and research psychologist in the Women’s Health Sciences Division, National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System.
For the study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, 522 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans (male and female) completed two surveys. The first survey was completed within two years of separation from military service, and included questions about veterans’ military experiences as well as their current mental health.
The second survey was completed approximately three and a half years later and included questions about functioning and satisfaction in regards to work, romantic relationships, and parenting.
The researchers concluded that each of the deployment stressors examined — warfare exposure, military sexual harassment, and family stressors — had implications for veterans’ subsequent functioning and satisfaction in the areas of work and family. Furthermore, these exposures were often indirectly linked to functioning and satisfaction via mental health.
Interestingly, the links differed between men and women. The findings show that PTSD symptoms played an important role for both genders, but depression played a particularly strong role in female veterans. For example, while PTSD linked all three deployment exposures and subsequent functioning and satisfaction in romantic relationships for men, both PTSD and depression played significant roles for women.
Some gender differences were also found regarding the direct effects of military exposures on work and family quality of life. For example, family stressors during deployment were directly associated with increased risk for parental impairment for female veterans, whereas for men the effect was only indirect through PTSD.
The study found some gender similarities as well. In the context of parenting, PTSD linked deployment exposures with reduced functioning for male and female veterans alike, and depression was the most important link in predicting lower satisfaction.
These findings support the position that men and women may experience different military exposures and react in different ways.
“This understanding of risk for reduced well-being, including the role of gender differences, may provide further important insight as to how to best cater post-military services to veterans’ unique needs following military service,” added Smith.
“From a clinical perspective, these findings suggest that services aimed at addressing returning veterans’ reintegration into work and family life might pay particular attention to male and female veterans’ experiences while deployed, as well as their current mental health.”
Source: Boston University Medical Center