The U.S. military is grappling with the issue of providing adequate mental health care for survivors of sexual assault. Bella Poarch, a former U.S. Navy member, recently shared her experience of being sexually assaulted while on her first assignment at the age of 18. Poarch initially hesitated to report the assault but eventually decided to do so out of concern for the safety of other sailors. However, she faced a lengthy and challenging process of convincing authorities that the crime had occurred.
Following the assault, Poarch suffered from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to a suicide attempt and hospitalization. Disturbingly, the suicide rate for women who join the U.S. military is higher than the national average, with the rate increasing after leaving the service. Research has shown that sexual assault and harassment are significant factors contributing to military suicide rates.
Access to mental health care for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) remains inadequate. A recent Government Accountability Office report highlighted several shortcomings in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) approach, including the lack of proper screening for sexual assault experiences, insufficient prioritization of mental health care for survivors, and limited confidential access to long-term care at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOPs) have emerged as a potential solution. These programs, which involve six to nine hours of treatment per week, have shown promising results in treating combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The focus is now shifting towards implementing IOPs for MST survivors. The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) aims to expand these programs throughout the DOD and establish private-public partnerships to address comorbid conditions such as PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
While the success of IOPs for combat-related PTSD is well-documented, their effectiveness for MST survivors is still being studied. The DOD has conducted a pilot program, but the results have not been made public. Transparency regarding the program’s outcomes and implementation is lacking.
Efforts to improve mental health care for MST survivors have been made through legislation introduced by Senators Jon Tester and Lisa Murkowski in 2017. However, the legislation has yet to pass, leaving survivors without the necessary support.
The challenges faced by survivors like Bella Poarch highlight the urgent need for the military to address the systemic issues surrounding sexual assault and harassment. Providing comprehensive and accessible mental health care is crucial in supporting survivors and preventing further tragedies.