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PRESS RELEASE: Service women identify sexual assault, not deployment, as number one factor that negatively affects their mental wellness

More than 1,300 service women and women veterans from all branches, ranks and eras responded to SWAN’s annual survey, making it one of the most comprehensive assessments of military women’s mental health

WASHINGTON, D.C.—  Service women across the nation say that sexual assault is the number one factor negatively affecting their mental well being according to results of SWAN’s 2nd Annual survey, released today. More than 1,300 women from all service branches, including the Coast Guard, and women veterans from different eras, participated in the survey, which focused on understanding the mental wellness needs of service women.

When asked what specifically about military service most positively or negatively impacted, or was impacting, their mental health, 30 percent of the women surveyed identified Military Sexual Trauma, while only 9 percent said deployments or combat. For some women who responded, the sexual violence occurred while deployed. Additionally, 11 percent said sexual harassment negatively affected their mental health, and 7 percent said gender bias and discrimination also negatively affected their mental well being.

“The survey results underscore the negative impact the sexual assault epidemic has on unit readiness and cohesion, mission effectiveness and the professionalism of the military services,” said Lydia Watts, SWAN CEO. “Since SWAN’s inception nearly ten years ago, we have been committed to listening and amplifying the voices of service women. SWAN will continue to assert its  influence to transform military culture to one that treats service women and women veterans with the same dignity and respect afforded to men, and immediately and effectively responds  when service members are sexually assaulted and  discriminated against.”

Overall, the survey revealed that 60 percent of participants report military service had a negative impact on their mental well being, and 21 percent of respondents reported having intentionally harmed themselves.

“This survey is a major benchmark in documenting the mental wellness of military women” said Dr. Ellen Haring, Director of Research and Programs at SWAN. “I am particularly surprised by the percentage of service women who have been clinically diagnosed with depression (61 percent) and post traumatic stress (51 percent),” she said, “but what is most distressing is that 49 percent attribute their poor mental wellness not to combat deployments but to the bias, harassment and sometimes assault that they received at the hands of fellow service members.”

Some promising results included 88 percent of respondents who agreed that mental health treatment can improve their quality of life. When asked what they needed to improve their mental well being, the women responded that they needed support from fellow service members and veterans. About 11 percent of respondents said that, for a variety of reasons, military service had positively impacted their mental health.

The survey results will be presented during SWAN’s 2nd Annual Summit, Nov. 13-14, in Washington, D.C. The Summit is bringing together active duty service women, women veterans and mental wellness providers from across the country to analyze in-depth the survey findings and arrive at women-driven solutions for their mental wellness needs. The women will form focus groups, led by researchers, to examine the most significant topics uncovered by the survey. The results of the survey and Summit will lead to a comprehensive report on the mental wellness of military women to be released early next year.  

“SWAN’s goal is to take, from the survey and our Summit, service women’s stories, messages and calls to action to our policy makers, agency administrators and the public at large to ensure that their needs are heeded,” Watts said. “We must do all we can to ensure that service women, who are engaged in maintaining the security of our country, are fully recognized, respected and honored. SWAN will not stop working until military women can serve in an organization that is free from bias, harassment and assault,” Watts said.   

Additional Insights from Survey

How Women Address Their Mental Health Needs:

Top 5 Ways Service Women Take Care of their Mental Health

  1. Medication 14%
  2. Therapy 10%
  3. Exercise 10%
  4. Friends 8%
  5. Counseling 8%

Top 5 Ways Service Women Cope When Their Mental Health is Not Good

  1. Sleep 14%
  2. Friends 9%
  3. Exercise 6%
  4. Drink 6%
  5. Isolate 5%

Comparison of Service Women, Civilians and Women Veterans

  • Survey data compared to national averages indicates that approximately 10% of military and civilian women self-report symptoms that indicate the presence of an undiagnosed mental health condition, but rates of diagnosed conditions are much higher. A national sample of military veterans indicated that one quarter of military women have been diagnosed with stress injury or depression. Of the sample SWAN surveyed, that number is higher – 61 percent of respondents have a diagnosis.
  • Particularly interesting is an examination of the SWAN respondents by service status. Undiagnosed conditions (meaning self-reported symptom presence that may indicate a problem) is low in retirees and veterans but high (20 percent) in active duty women, indicating stigma against care seeking in this community.

Other Highlights From Survey

  • 66% responded that military service had a negative impact on their physical well being.
  • 61% said they have a service-connected disability rating from the VA.
  • 60% report that they have been clinically diagnosed with a depressive disorder.
  • 51% report that they have been clinically diagnosed with a post traumatic stress injury.
  • 49 % percent say some type of  gender bias, sexual harassment and/or sexual violence negatively affected their mental wellness.

Survey Respondent Demographics

Currently serving 17%

Veteran 61%

Retired 21%

Officer 18%

Enlisted 76%

Both 6%

Army 47%

Air Force 25%

Navy 17%

Marine Corps 7%

Coast Guard 4%

White 80%

Black 12%

Hispanic 9%

Other minority groups 7%

Other Demographic Data

  • 55% of respondents are post 9/11 service women.
  • 63% have a bachelor’s or higher-level degrees (relative to their civilian counterparts they are a very well educated demographic group).
  • 16% report being unemployed.
  • 43% report being caregivers.

SWAN thanks the United Health Foundation and Sidley Austin LLP for their support of military women.

About the Service Women’s Action Network
SWAN is a national, nonpartisan organization and member-driven community network advocating for the individual and collective needs of service women. To date, SWAN has played a major role in opening all military jobs to service women, holding sex offenders accountable in the military justice system, eliminating barriers to disability claims for those who have experienced military sexual trauma, and expanding access to a broad range of reproductive healthcare services for service women. You can follow Service Women’s Action Network on Facebook at, Twitter @servicewomen or visit our website at