Although women veterans represent 12 percent of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, they underutilize Veterans Affairs (VA) health care relative to men, according to Sally Koblinsky, professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Dr. Koblinsky and fellow Family Science researchers Dr. Leigh Leslie, associate professor, and Dr. Allison Schroeder, student, designed a qualitative study to examine the health care experiences of this recent cohort of women veterans, soliciting their ideas for improving treatment and redesigning health care systems.
The researchers recruited 29 women veterans from diverse military ranks and racial, economic and educational backgrounds to participate in focus groups. Women discussed their treatment for various war-related health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and recommended ways in which U.S. Veteran Affairs health care specialists and community-based clinicians could enhance their health care.
Participants generated 16 recommendations in three thematic areas. The first theme focused on building stronger therapeutic relationships between women veterans and their mental health professionals. Recent veterans voiced a desire for more engaged, sensitive, and respectful care, seeking clinicians who recognized their courage and contributions.
A second theme, improving the clinical care environment, addressed strategies such as educating health care providers about military culture and war-related health conditions, expanding access to “talk” therapies and alternative therapies that facilitate self-empowerment, and carefully monitoring use of medications. Koblinsky also highlighted “women’s advocacy for more female veteran peer support programs and therapies that included family members.”
In a final thematic area focusing on the health care system, women recommended increasing messaging about women’s eligibility for behavioral health care and coordinating clinical care with community-based programs that support veterans. Both women veterans and the researchers stressed the need to evaluate the effectiveness of mental health therapies and programs.
“Researchers and practitioners should continue to engage women veterans as full partners in the development of best practices to enhance their mental health care,” Dr. Koblinsky said. “We hope our research will help clinicians treat this important population, and reduce veterans’ behavioral health problems before they become more chronic, costly, and severe.”
The UMD study was part of the Maryland Veterans Resilience Initiative, a 30-month research and training project funded by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.