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Photo: Hale, Timothy. Female soldier on duty. 2009, Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Hale, Timothy. Female soldier on duty. 2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Pictured above: Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Carroll, from Aurora, Colo., and representing the Military Intelligence Recruiting Command, modifies a light with a red marker for night operations prior to the night Urban Warfighting Orienteering Course at the 2009 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition at Fort McCoy, Wis., July 14, 2009.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, women are the fastest-growing Veteran group, currently comprising about 9% of the U.S. Veteran population, whereas that number is expected to rise to 15% in 2035. Additionally, female Veteran are more likely to die by suicide than female non-Veterans. In 2016, the suicide rate of female Veterans was nearly twice the suicide rate of non-Veteran females. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to research and discuss suicidality in U.S. female Veterans because of the additional risks that females face in the Armed Forces, as well as my own personal encounter with them to know how serious they are. The common themes in the articles that I’ve chosen for my research expand upon these unique physical and psychological challenges, and how female Veteran suicidality may be correlated with them.

A Hidden Threat

The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report has shown that despite female Veteran suicide counts and rates decreased from 2015 to 2016 from 283 deaths to 257 deaths per year, overall, rates of suicide for female Veterans are rising faster than rates for male Veterans. Currently there are higher rates of suicide among males exposed to combat than women, however there is insufficient data to determine whether this is also true for women, since women were barred from combat up until recently. Although, there is sufficient data available that suggests there are increased rates of suicide associated with military deployment for women than there is men (Schuman et al., 2019). In one study that measured the association of military and premilitary sexual trauma with risk for suicidality, results suggest differences in the relation of sexual trauma to suicide risk among male and female military personnel and veterans. Whereas there is an elevated suicide rate of deployed women (Bryan et al., 2015), premilitary sexual trauma showed relatively stronger associations with suicide risk among women whereas military sexual trauma showed relatively stronger associations with suicide risk among men (Street et al., 2015). So while it may seem that sexual trauma does contribute to a Veteran’s risk of suicidality, it doesn’t seem to be the catalyst for why women are at an elevated risk for it on deployment. Ideally, it may be a symptom of a larger problem, according to a survey examining the impact of different types of military trauma on suicidality in female Veterans. For this survey, both female Veterans and Active Duty personnel were asked what their greatest stressors were in the military. Of those that participated in the survey, 36% responded a perceived life threat, 43% being wounded, and 65% sexual harassment had the strongest associations with suicidality compared to other military stressors for them (Khan, 2019). One could assume that a majority or all of these stressors would reflect the same for men as well, based on the findings of the aforementioned studies. But it wouldn’t resolve why women’s rates of suicide were elevated above men’s for deployment if they arguably experienced the same stressors. If the stressors were the same, what was causing women to be at a higher risk for suicidality?

The Pygmalion Effect

In an article published by Joint Force Quarterly, the researcher explored the consequences of gender bias that women service-members face. She was able to determine that lower standards and poor training that women soldiers experienced contributed to their lack of confidence in their job performance, as well as their fellow male colleagues’ confidence in them. Therefore, they were made to feel like outsiders amongst the men which resulted in them having a weaker social support system than a male soldier would have amongst his fellow soldiers (Trobaugh, 2015).

From these findings, it may be inferred that cultural factors are to blame for the differences in suicidality risk among men and women on deployment. Because of confirmation bias about women’s abilities within combat, a large number of service-members believe that women aren’t as capable as men (physically and/or otherwise), and therefore, turn a blind eye to training failures, not offer additional training, and/or lower standards because of low expectations. Trainers would instead pass women despite their poor performance because of a quota for female recruitment, so that women were not getting the same training as the men. Therefore when a woman did fail due to inadequate training, it would continue to confirm these harmful beliefs about women (Trobaugh, 2015) (Rosenthal, R. & Jacobsen, L., 1968). Because women are marginalized by not being considered as equally capable teammates as their male counterparts, they are more susceptible to the physical and psychological dangers that come with being in the military (whether from an outside enemy or other fellow service-members) because of their lack of a support system. Overall, this may suggest why women are more susceptible to suicidality on deployment.

Future Research

Women are needed in the military. The changing front of how modern warfare is waged is a testament for their necessity to be included in national defense, since the effectiveness of a unit is hindered by undiversified group-think without them (Janis, 1972). If these cultural factors are ignored for the dangers that women have to face alone in the Armed Forces (physically, psychologically, etc.), then we’re all in danger — not just female Veterans.

Possible directions for future research that may follow this could be explored once military physical standards are streamlined and job specific, rather than sex specific. If attitudes change about women, and women become more included as a result, will suicide rates among female Veterans go down? While both male and female service-members are at an increased risk for suicidality than civilians, a strong support system can mean the difference between life and death for anyone.

Street, A., Gilman, S., Rosellini, A., Stein, M., Bromet, E., Cox, K., … Kessler, R. (2015). Understanding the elevated suicide risk of female soldiers during deployments. Psychological Medicine, 45(4), 717–726.

Bryan, C., Bryan, A., & Clemans, T. (2015). The association of military and premilitary sexual trauma with risk for suicide ideation, plans, and attempts. Psychiatry Research, 227(2/3), 246–252.

Khan, A., Li, Y., Dinh, J., Donalson, R., Hebenstreit, C., & Maguen, S. (2019). Examining the impact of different types of military trauma on suicidality in women veterans. Psychiatry Research, 274, 7–11.

Schuman, D., Cerel, J., & Praetorius, R. (2019). Suicide in U.S. Women Veterans: An Interpersonal Theory Perspective on Suicide Prevention Policies. Social Work in Public Health, 34(5), 418–429.

Trobaugh, E. (2018). Women, Regardless: Understanding Gender Bias in U.S. Military Integration. JFQ: Joint Force Quarterly, 1(88), 46–53.

Rosenthal, R., Jacobsen, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. 3(1) The Urban Review, 16–20.

Janis, I.(1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.

Psychology | Philosophy | Faith

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