Read more: The Quick Facts about VA's Healthcare Services for MST (PDF)
Military sexual trauma, or MST, is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a Veteran experienced during his or her military service.
The definition used by the VA comes from Federal law (Title 38 U.S. Code 1720D) and is "psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training."
Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character."
More concretely, MST includes any sexual activity where a Servicemember is involved against his or her will - he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include:
The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether the Servicemember was on or off duty at the time, and whether he or she was on or off base at the time do not matter. If these experiences occurred while an individual was on active duty or active duty for training, they are considered by VA to be MST.
VA's national screening program, in which every Veteran seen for health care is asked whether he or she experienced MST, provides data on how common MST is among Veterans seen in VA. National data from this program reveal that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men respond "yes," that they experienced MST, when screened by their VA provider. Although rates of MST are higher among women, because there are many more men than women in the military, there are actually significant numbers of women and men seen in VA who have experienced MST.
It is important to keep in mind that these data speak only to the rate of MST among Veterans who have chosen to seek VA health care; they cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment experiences among all individuals serving in the U.S. Military. Also, although Veterans who respond "yes" when screened are asked if they are interested in learning about MST-related services available, not every Veteran who responds "yes" necessarily needs or is interested in treatment. MST is an experience, not a diagnosis, and Veterans' current treatment needs will vary.
MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition, and as with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that Veterans can have in response to MST. The type, severity, and duration of a Veteran's difficulties will all vary based on factors like:
Although trauma can be a life-changing event, people are often remarkably resilient after experiencing trauma. Many individuals recover without professional help; others may generally function well in their life, but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations. For some Veterans, the experience of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.
Although trauma can be a life-changing event, people are often remarkably resilient after experiencing trauma. Many individual recover without professional help; others may function in general, but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations. For some Veterans, experiences of MST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.
Some of the experiences both female and male survivors of MST may have include:
Although posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with MST, it is not the only diagnosis that can result from MST. For example, VA medical record data indicate that in addition to PTSD, the diagnoses most frequently associated with MST among users of VA health care are depression and other mood disorders, and substance use disorders.
Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of trauma, and VA has effective services to help Veterans do this.
VA is strongly committed to ensuring that Veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST.
In addition to its treatment programming, VA also provides training to staff on issues related to MST, including a mandatory training on MST for all mental health and primary care providers. VA also engages in a range of outreach activities to Veterans and conducts monitoring of MST-related screening and treatment, in order to ensure that adequate services are available.
For more information, Veterans can: