Veterans who suffered sexual trauma are also at risk for eating disorders

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Sexual trauma of any kind can be devastating and lead to a whole host of additional psychiatric issues, including PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and even homelessness. This is also true in the military, where approximately 25% of all female and 1% of male veterans are subjected to “sexual activity where a service member is involved against his or her will.”

However, one issue is often forgotten in both the public and scientific research. Despite anecdotal evidence suggesting military sexual trauma is tied to eating disorders, few studies have investigated the phenomenon – until now.

According to new research conducted by researchers at Utah State University, which shows that veterans with a history of sexual trauma face a heightened risk for eating disorders after service.

In the study, led by assistant professor of psychology, Rebecca Blais, Ph.D., the team reviewed data collected by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) over 10 years. Specifically, they were looking for any diagnosis of eating disorders within 1 and 5 years of initiating VHA care, and whether they reported military sexual trauma.

Based on the data, the team found that eating disorders in veterans were tied to a number of risk factors including sexual trauma.  They also report that eating disorders were higher in veterans who were never married, younger service members, female veterans, and those with PTSD, depressive disorders, and substance abuse.

After accounting for potential variables, the researchers concluded that military sexual trauma doubled a veteran’s risk for eating disorders.

As Blais explains in the report, military sexual trauma and eating disorders are both “understudied public health concerns” that “share many of the same psychiatric distress correlates including PTSD, depression, substance misuse, and homelessness.”

The researchers do note that it is hard to tell whether the findings could be reflective of the general public because they limited their scope to veterans receiving VA care. Despite this, they say that “gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the association between two understudied health concerns, MST and EDs, could inform the development of targeted ED screening strategies, thereby improving early detection and allowing for the timely provision of appropriate treatment, such as trauma-informed care.”

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