AUSTIN, Texas - A new study published in the journal "Depression and Anxiety" shows that new moms who previously experienced sexual assault and harassment in the military have higher rates of depression and experience negative effects on mother-baby bonding.
Researchers at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, along with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans used self-reported data from a nationally representative sample of 697 pregnant veterans who used Veterans Health Administration maternity care benefits at 15 VHA centers between 2016 and 2020.
The results of the study showed that female veterans who experienced sexual assault and harassment while in the military had higher rates of depression during or after pregnancy. The higher depression rates also led to bonding issues between mother and child.
The data came from the Center for Maternal and Infant Outcomes and Research in Translation veterans study that was conducted out of the VA Central Western Massachusetts. Mothers with prior military experience responded to the surveys over the phone during the first three months of pregnancy, and then the first three months after giving birth. The degree of mother-baby attachment was measured by scientists using a standardized parent-infant bonding measurement tool.
About 1 in 4 female veterans experience sexual assault or harassment while serving in the military, in comparison to about 1 in 5 woman in the U.S. overall.
"This is a landmark study for women veterans," said study author Suzannah Creech, a research psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Dell Med. "Childbearing and parenting experiences have been ignored for so long in the context of the military, and yet we are talking about a group of children potentially at risk for serious psychiatric disorders throughout their lifetimes," she said.
Various findings have shown that children of military families are more likely to join the military themselves, according to Creech. "These children could be joining the armed forces with a risk factor already sparked by their own parents’ military experience, resulting in cycles of familial mental health problems," she said.
Military sexual trauma is not yet fully-understood, but previous research suggests that any past trauma increases rates of depression during the time around pregnancy.
"The female veteran population is growing, and research related to women veterans is critical in effectively addressing the gender-specific needs of the population," said Stacy Ritz, associate chief of staff for mental health and behavior medicine of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System. "This study highlights the necessity of viewing the issues facing women veterans in a larger societal context rather than simply focusing on the individual impact. This has large implications for how we address mental health needs for expecting and new mothers."
According to Creech, barriers to maternal-infant bonding can be removed using manageable intervention such as parent-infant massage to improve connection with the baby, and screening for both postpartum depression and signs of inadequate bonding.
The current study is part of a larger body of studies by Dell Med's Institute for Early Life Adversity Research, of which Creech is a faculty member. Future research by Creech will include investigations about trauma-informed parent-infant bonding support for female veterans with children up to 3 years old.
Earlier this year, Creech provided expert testimony to a special commission ordered by Joe Biden, the U.S. Department of Defense's Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. The commission's goal was to make recommendations for actions to address sexual assault and harassment in the military.
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