01/30/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Women, the Front Line and PTSD

Last week, the Department of Defense announced that women will soon be allowed to serve in combat. There's been a lot of talk about what this means for women, with some feminists celebrating the decision and others worrying about the harsh reality to come. But what about how women in combat will affect PTSD?

PTSD is an epidemic. It affects American servicemen and servicewomen of all backgrounds, all ages and all military titles. But in recent years, the prevalence of PTSD has increased among our female Veterans, sitting around 20 percent according to the Department of Defense. Among male Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, most sources put the rate somewhere between 14 and 18 percent. But with more women joining the front lines, this rate is bound to increase, and fast. We owe it to our female Veterans and our active duty servicewomen to learn more about how PTSD affects them.

Here's what we know now: Even after the ban disappears, women may still be less exposed to the front lines. But at the same time, women are much more likely to suffer Military Sexual Trauma, also called Military Sexual Violence. These experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment are closely linked to PTSD. In one study of Korean War Veterans, exposure to sexual assault put an individual at a higher risk for PTSD than combat. More than 50 sexual assaults occurred per day between October 2010 and September 2011, and women were by far the most common victims. One-third of our active-duty servicewomen say they have experienced MST.

When women develop PTSD, they often experience different symptoms than men do. Women suffering from PTSD are more likely to develop anxiety and depression than men are. But at the same time, it's also less common for women to develop the substance abuse and violent tendencies that often plague men living with these invisible wounds of war. No one has discovered exactly why, but many researchers say the differences boil down to the biology of men and women's brains.

Luckily, there's a silver lining to the story. Women are more likely to develop PTSD because of MST and their biological reactions to fear, but they're also more likely to seek treatment. In my experience counseling Veterans, my female warriors tend to walk in on day one more comfortable showing their true range of emotions. My male Veterans also find success with positive psychology, but it often just takes a little extra work to get there. Other data shows that women are naturally more conditioned to be intimate and draw from a larger range of coping strategies.

As the ban on women in combat gets officially lifted, our female active-duty personnel and Veterans will likely become even more susceptible to PTSD. The high instances of trauma seen on the front lines and the significant likelihood of sexual trauma at the hands of military personnel are two critical hurdles for the health of our servicewomen.

Without more concrete research on how women develop and cope with PTSD, our female warriors will continue to face these insurmountable hurdles. The more we know, the better we can serve them.