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Health, Science & Environment

A new report highlights the gaps in women veterans’ mental health care

Six women stand in a line in military uniforms.
Sgt. Lexy Washburn
Defense Visual Information Distribution Service
The nonprofit Disabled American Veterans released over 50 recommendations on how to better support the mental health of women veterans.

Ginger MacCutcheon had plans to spend decades as a military medic in the Women’s Army Corps. She enlisted right out of high school, leaving northeast Ohio at the age of 18.

I went off to boot camp dressed in a suit with matching luggage and shoes, just like Private Benjamin would go,” MacCutcheon said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this is a great adventure I’m going on.’”

That dream was cut short. MacCutcheon was raped repeatedly by commanding officers. The sexual harassment followed her from base to base. Years passed before she felt safe enough to confide in a colleague and was honorably discharged.

In the years following her departure from the military, MacCutcheon attempted suicide twice.

“They discharge you and let you go with no idea of how you're going to help yourself or get help. Nobody says anything,” MacCutcheon said.

A young woman smiles in front of an American flag in a military uniform.
Ginger MacCutcheon
Ginger MacCutcheon enlisted in the army at a young age.

Veterans are at higher risk for suicide than civilians. And the rate for women veterans has risen more sharply than that for their male counterparts. It jumped more than 20% between 2020 and 2021.

The nonprofit Disabled American Veterans (DAV) says women veterans need more support for their unique mental health needs. A third of them experience military sexual trauma. Female veterans are more likely to experience intimate partner violence and have an eating disorder. All three can lead to a greater risk of suicide.

But, the VA doesn’t factor in all of these risks in their mental health outreach and intervention, according to Naomi Mathis, policy advocate with the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans, or DAV.

“The VA was not created with women in mind,” Mathis said.

Changing the baseline

Mathis said the VA created a model for assessing risk of suicide that’s based on men; it doesn’t include military sexual trauma (MST), which disproportionately impacts women.

She argues that makes the more than 60,000 female veterans in Ohio more likely to slip through the cracks. Especially, she said, because many of them don’t see themselves as veterans eligible for care. They don’t see the VA as serving them.

“That's common, very common among our women veterans, particularly the ones that served during an era when they were getting kicked out just for being pregnant,” Mathis said.

“The VA was not created with women in mind."
Naomi Mathis, Air Force veteran and DAV policy advocate

Mathis worked with veterans like MacCutcheon to shed light on the gaps, resulting in a report with more than 50 recommendations of how the VA could better serve the mental health needs of women. It recommends increasing screening for military sexual trauma and investing in research into the effect of menopause on PTSD.

We believe also that MST [screenings] should be the central pillar of suicide prevention efforts within the VA,” Mathis said.

The DAV report did acknowledge the administration has made strides in its women-centered mental health programming. VA Press secretary Terrence Hayes said the administration will do everything in its power to serve women veterans, the fastest growing cohort at the VA.

"Women veterans experience unique challenges related to their military service, including readjustment challenges, posttraumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, trouble sleeping and even physical injury. And while these unique experiences can increase the risk of suicide and require targeted solutions, suicide remains a complex issue that has many causes. It is difficult to characterize unique factors that relate to changes in suicide rates over time or across populations, but we continue to look into all aspects to work towards our goal of ending suicide in the veteran community," Hayes said in a statement.

In recent years, the VA has invested in significant research on PTSD in women and expanded outreach. At every VA facility, there is a Women’s Mental Health Champion, a mental health clinician with expertise on treating women veterans.

"Bottom line is that we want every woman veteran to come to VA for their health care and benefits," said Hayes.

Gender-exclusive care

Still, Mathis said the VA needs to increase its offerings to meet the needs of the growing number of women who are turning to them for help. She said it should consider expanding its gender-exclusive PTSD care options. There’s only 13 VA gender-exclusive residential rehabilitation facilities across the country, according to the DAV report.

The Cincinnati VA is one of them. Kate Chard is the director of the the PTSD programs in its medical center, where they’ve seen an increase in the number of women seeking out residential care. She said treatment for PTSD in men and women largely looks the same, but women feel more comfortable talking about their experiences of sexual trauma in female-only spaces.

Plus, she said, they can address how reproductive health impacts their healing.

“We know that PTSD is linked to where you are in your menstrual cycle and that you may have more symptoms,” Chard said. “And so those were important things to be able to talk to women about and have them understand their bodies and their biology in a way that's different from men.”

Regaining hope

Ginger MacCutcheon served as the commander of her post, helping veterans get connected to the care they need.
Disabled American Veterans
Ginger MacCutcheon served as the commander of her post, helping veterans get connected to the care they need.

The VA has succeeded in helping veterans like MacCutcheon. The Cleveland VA connected her to counseling and to a woman’s support group. She said it gave her hope again, for the first time since she was a teenager.

“That was how my recovery started,” MacCutcheon said. “It took years to realize that it wasn't my fault. Because I still carried that with me.”

She became a nurse, a commissioner for the Summit County Veterans Service and the commander of the DAV Chapter 116 in Parma. She organized veteran appreciation days, trained service dogs, and most importantly, she said, she always picked up the phone for a peer in need.

She died recently, from unrelated health issues, at the age of 65, having dedicated her life to helping others find treatment.

“It is an issue that we need help with. And we can't stop striving to get people the help that they need or make it available. We have to do better,” MacCutcheon said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or emotional distress, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

This story was updated on May 14th to include a statement from the VA.

Health, Science & Environment The Ohio NewsroomMental Healthwomen veterans
Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.