By: Kaylah Jackson
Being a woman in the military often feels like living in two worlds: a feminine one and a masculine one.
The duality of wavering in between both personas is often an inadvertent stressor. Women also have a history of downplaying their service. Rather than identifying as a veteran or saying “I served,” they might instead say “well, I didn’t deploy,” or “I only served 4 years.”
Regardless of MOS, years in service or overseas experience, there are women veterans. Over 2 million of them to date, in fact.
SWAN , the Service Women’s Action Network, is an organization dedicated to unifying, supporting and impacting the female veteran community. This year, they used their annual member survey to analyze what it means to be a woman in the military and look at the state of mental health for active-duty and women veterans.
The survey, although not random, was sent out to members and distributed through social platforms. Overwhelmingly, it noted 60 percent of female service members who participated said military service had a negative impact on their mental well-being (although 73 percent say the experiences they went through in their military service “strengthened” them).
Military culture is a double-edged sword—they break you down in order to build you back up. But many women are asking, in their instance, at what cost?
Chair of the San Diego Women’s Network and US Army veteran Billikai Boughton said, “We need to let go of this idea that having a cold is the end of the world or getting an injury means that you somehow failed. We need to learn how to recognize we’re human beings and sometimes you get hurt or get a virus and that’s natural.”
Women who served are also more likely to report being in good health in comparison to their civilian women counterparts, even when they aren’t in good health: another possible effect of the stigma against mental health in the military. Many have experienced the saying, “don’t go to sick call unless your leg is falling off.” And while this attitude perpetuates an “adapt and overcome attitude,” it also strengthens the idea that personal health and wellness is more important than the mission.
Whether ignoring injury and sickness or dealing with their experiences as a woman in uniform, military life can have a negative affect on mental health, especially when not treated immediately. Many might not understand that day-to-day challenges often manifest in bigger ways that can affect mental health.
No one wants their superiors to perceive they might have inappropriate relations with their battle buddies, so women warriors might decline invites after hours for drinks with the rest of the unit. Some women don’t even allow their counterparts to see them in civilian clothes for fear of judgement. And, although “being a part of the team,” should feel natural, women might use language or innuendos they would never otherwise use in an attempt to feel accepted by “the boys club.”
Coping mechanisms run the gamut, but according to SWAN, women in the military cope with by sleeping, drinking, isolating themselves, and exercise when they feel their mental health might not be up to par. While officials of SWAN note that there still needs to be more investigation of how the military might adversely affect female mental health, their survey is only a starting point.