About 10 years ago, Veterans Administration hospitals started to see a rise in women scheduling mental health appointments – a trend that seemed to catch healthcare workers off guard.
“At that time, the VA really didn’t have a huge infrastructure related to women’s health,” said Jena Hedrick-Walker, the director of strategic development for Loyal Source, a veteran-friendly healthcare company. “Women would go to the VA and get asked, ‘Where is your spouse?’ and they’d say, ‘This is my appointment. I’m a veteran.’”
Hedrick-Walker’s position is the latest stop in her extensive career working with military programs and women struggling with their mental health.
Thanks to the efforts of people like Hedrick-Walker, the suicide rates of women in the military have gone down. A September 2022 report from the VA showed that fewer veterans died by suicide in 2020 than in any year since 2006. Among women veterans, the age-adjusted suicide rate fell by 14.1 percent, and in 2020 had reached its lowest rate since 2013.
The decreasing numbers indicate that the VA and other veterans organizations are recognizing the challenges women veterans sometimes struggle with, said Hedrick-Walker.
“One of the things that they found definitively is the way women sort of internalize,” she said. “Women want to take on the world. They want to handle everything themselves, and then they wait until the entire world is falling down around them to ask for help.
“In the military, they have learned to be very independent. They have learned to deal with discrimination and sort of being alone. Then, they get out into the civilian world and they try to do the same thing.”
Hedrick-Walker referenced a study that showed differences between how men and women view situations in life when things don’t go their way, which showed that women tended to blame themselves when things went wrong while men typically placed the blame on others.
“Men might say, ‘The world has failed me,’ or ‘This isn’t going to work.’ A woman would say, ‘I’m worthless and I don’t deserve this,’” she said. “And women constantly ruminate on those thoughts. And those thoughts can be very, very damaging.”
For women transitioning out of the military and experiencing tough times, Hedrick-Walker has two pieces of advice: Be kind to yourself, and know there is help available.
“If you’re going back to your hometown or a new town where you’re building a totally new support system, you’re learning self-determination outside of that insulated military environment,” she said. “Understand that you’ve bitten off quite a bit. Realize you’re not the only person out there who’s been through this. There are other people out there who want to help you. One of the first things you can do is get connected to some sort of peer support group.”
Government resources for women looking for help include:
· Military OneSource offers transitioning peer support and financial counseling.
· Center for Women Veterans (CWV), in addition to counseling and health care, offers a call center to help with available benefits at 1-855-829-6636.
· The National Resource Directory is a governmental organization for Wounded Warriors and service members and caregivers and provides access to state and local groups.
Non-governmental resources and online social media groups include:
· The Women’s Veterans Alliance hosts conferences and has online communities around the country to help women engage with fellow veterans.
· The Mission Continues is a nonprofit that helps connect veterans across the country.
· Portraits for Patriots offers free veteran headshots for transitioning military members looking to re-enter the workforce.
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