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Psychological Health Challenges for Women Warriors

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(From left) Panelists Drs. Kate McGraw, DCoE senior consulting psychologist; Robert Jaeger, acting director of deployment health with Department of Veteran Affairs; and Christine Carter, vice president for scientific affairs with the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) present on military women's health at a Congressional briefing hosted by SWHR Aug. 2, 2011. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Kate McGraw is a clinical psychologist and senior consulting psychologist at DCoE. She was one of the first female intercontinental ballistic missile launch officers in the U.S. Air Force while stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

I’ve worked for the military for nearly 25 years in many different roles. Early in my career I broke into a gender-restricted field and the experience caused me to think a lot about challenges for females in the military. For the most part, while my gender made me obviously different from the males, I didn’t focus on it. My parents raised me to do my best, accomplish whatever I set my mind and heart to, and to never limit myself to a narrow female role.

As my military career shifted and changed, as chief for social actions, I taught how to prevent discrimination and sexual harassment. I was the aerospace psychologist with the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program as we integrated the first female jet pilot trainees into the school. As a clinical psychologist, I treated many military women, and there were often problems addressed in therapy directly related to the challenge of thriving in an environment as the only woman in the shop.

I participated in a Congressional briefing yesterday hosted by the Society for Women’s Health Research on military women’s psychological health and in preparation, I must admit I sat and reminisced a bit. Many of the faces of the hundreds of brave military women whose stories I’ve listened to, and whose tears I’ve witnessed, crowded my brain as I tried to carefully decide which topics to address.

There are enormous complexities related to being a woman in the military, challenges most men typically don’t face, and many people don’t think about. These difficulties directly impact psychological health. I remember a few of those “opportunities for growth” myself, having been the first pregnant woman ever on the missile combat crew force at Malmstrom AFB. The challenges military women face can involve leadership acceptance, child care, biological differences, societal role expectations, sexual harassment and assault, and ostracism by peers because of gender differences.

Some of our health research now focuses on how to better understand and help military women with a variety of psychological health concerns, and looks at how we can improve military culture to better support and respect differences among us. Women cope with combat-related stress just as men do. Additionally, research shows women appear to experience higher rates of sexual harassment and assault and are more likely to be treated for depression than men. And yes, while psychological health research may show us that in some situations women do things differently and respond to events differently than their male counterparts, different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different.

I decided to emphasize the most important truth at the briefing: our women warriors are brave, dedicated and risk their lives to defend our country, while juggling a lot of other responsibilities at the same time. Through sound prevention, outreach, resilience building and treatment programs, we’re making an effort to understand how best to help strengthen their psychological health. These are exciting times for both women warriors and those of us in the psychological health field.

Comments (7)

  • Steve Robertson 05 Sep

    I attended yesterday's briefing and found it very informative. I was in the USAF as a Security Police Officer and a Missile Combat Crew Commander for the Minuteman III ICBM in Minot and the Flight Commander for the Ground Launched Cruise Missile in Sicily. I was at Barksdale AFB when women first entered the Law Enforcement career field and later when they entered the Weapons Systems Security career field. I also had a female GLCM crew. I found strong leadership and holding personnel accountable for their conduct and action extremely helpful. Fortunately, I did not experience any serious problems in any of these assignments; however, my fellow officers on different flights were not as fortunate. Professionalism and leadership are important, but aggressive actions in dealing with minor incidents, I believe, set the standard for zero tolerance among subordinates. Leadership by example is also a key component, both in public and private settings.
  • William D'Emilio, Jr. 05 Sep

    indeed an important nature most of the hunters are female...and societal ideals aside (mother & apple pie)..that potential exists within modern human not acknowledge said organizational skill set...would be unenlightened at best..and really dumb at worst !!! equality can only be realized when men respect the power of women..and empower them through cooperation...rather than measure their manhood..through competitive comparison !! insecurity can only breed defensive reactions...undermining the teamwork required of unit interaction...and not allowing full potential to be manifested...thus shooting themselves in the foot !!! heck...when you become your own's time to change tactics..n'est pas ???
  • Dr. Kate McGraw 05 Sep

    Steve, thanks so much for your service, and for your strong officership with all of your troops. You have an excellent point about leadership and accountability for every member of a unit: without critical strong leadership, certain accountability, and swift and appropriate consequences for transgressions, our morale and espirit de corps crumbles and the mission fails. I'm glad you took something positive away from the briefing and I appreciate your comments.
  • Cavin 05 Sep

    Dr. McGraw, quite realistic issue on which you made this article. It is very often that we see females are not considered to extent of the males. What to express to you, you have experienced yourself; it is good to hear about your success story. I personally look forward to hear more successes, even I pray to Almighty for the same. I would also share about this article with my friends.
  • Dr. Kate McGraw 05 Sep

    William, very well stated. My hope is that we continue as a society to grow to value the input of every human being, regardless of the role we each play within an organization, and we focus more on collaboration rather than conflict. In the interim, we can each do our part individually to make a difference by treating each other (regardless of gender or other qualities that make us different from one another on the outside) with respect and kindness, and then collectively things will be likely to eventually shift and change.
  • Deidra 05 Sep

    Depression is a disorder that is of concern to women who serve. I have been a patient of the military behavioral health program for almost 3 years and have some suggestions for improvement. I think this could apply both to "wounded warrior" who deployed, and also those of us stationed overseas returning home with mental illness. There is unfortunately a great deal of misunderstanding of the whole body experience of diseases affecting the Central Nervous System in the military. In the course of my disease I received a command directed evaluation by a psychologist. She cleared me for duty emotionally, and said she could not comment about other physical issues. The psychiatrists that have been a part of my treatment have expressed that depression affects overall health. Excessive negative stress, chemical changes in the brain that can actually cause nerve damage, adverse effects on the endocrine system, adverse effects on the immune system, musculoskeletal pain, altered mental ability, and so on. I unfortunately fit in a grey area that is not well handled by current policy and procedures. I am able to perform my duties most days. I am sick more often than people not diagnosed with depression, but I also return to duty when appropriate recovery is performed. My psychiatrist told me the profession defines remission from depression as 85% recovery. So at the point of remission in a year I can expect to have 310 productive days, leaving 55 days to major depression which is debilitating. After evaluating the math I have missed less than what could be expected especially since I have only been in remission for a few months at a time in the past 3 years. I have come to work sick trying to “Soldier On” only to have significant more secondary illness and complications resulting in more time missed. This is a viscous cycle that has affected all of my family. I do hope that it can be used to influence policy and improve the Army for those of us with invisible wounds and scars. I have tried to work within the system of patient advocacy and my providers but have not achieved any resolve. I personally think a team approach would better serve mental illness patients. Similar to cancer the whole body should be addressed by a team that can sit down and discuss the cases that they are responsible. Right now the military health care system is separated into specialties and often allow for patients to fall through the cracks of administrative problems and poor communication. I hope that there will be continued improvement so that the numerous soldiers with mental disease can benefit. Thank you for your attention.
  • Dr. Kate McGraw 05 Sep

    @Deidra, Thanks so much for your suggestions for improvement of the DoD system of care. I’m sorry to hear of your struggles and hope your condition continues to improve with good treatment. DoD providers are trained to work hard to address the comprehensive needs of each service member, and recognize that an individual’s entire life is impacted greatly as a result of psychological health difficulties. There is always room for improvement. I’d like to learn more about your ideas, as there are many ways for you to get involved in helping to improve the MHS if you are interested. Please call DCoE at 301-295-3257 and ask to speak to Dr. McGraw.

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