VA clinical psychologist raises military sexual trauma awareness
August 29, 2014
As the Army continues to strengthen its core values and leadership, Fort Huachuca's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP program, hopes to build leaders of advocacy when addressing military sexual trauma, or MST.
Soldiers and civilians received a better understanding of MST through SHARP's guest speaker Michael Moore, Ph.D., Military Sexual Trauma coordinator, Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System, Tucson, on Aug. 22 at Murr Community Center. Moore shared his expertise in defining MST, its current statistics, psychological and physiological impacts and treatments available.
"I want [program attendees] to take away how to not blame the victim and be a first responder for them," said Sgt. Angela Lovely, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, outgoing Fort Huachuca SHARP sexual assault response coordinator.
During the presentation, Moore gave advice on a course of action to follow if a commanding officer is approached by an MST victim. He explained that if that Soldier was recently victimized, how physical and emotional needs must first be met before scheduling therapy sessions.
Moore pointed out that an MST victim needs to be in a safe place -- away from the perpetrator. He stated that in the military, due to command structure, they are often put back into that same environment, which can cause them to relive the same traumatic experience all over again.
He stressed that victims should have the option to talk about the experience because it sometimes helps them, but at the same time the victim shouldn't feel forced to talk. A leading Soldier must also help the victim manage the symptoms and emotions from the MST. According to Moore, this helps the victim feel validated.
"I cannot tell you how many times I've heard the phrase, 'I felt so invalidated when I told so-and-so about what happened. When I went to my commanding officer about it, [he or she] basically told me to suck it up and move on, and told me that it's not as bad as it sounds, or you'll get over it.' That can be very invalidating to the individual," Moore said. "So being able to validate the person's emotions and feelings is very important."
He emphasized a variety of treatments are available at the Tucson VA depending upon where the victims are at in the recovery process and what needs they might have. These options include trauma education, where they learn about the trauma and reactions they are experiencing.
In the skills development program, MST patients learn core coping skills to deal with the distress and manage their emotions. The next steps of treatment, cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure, are trauma-focused. In cognitive processing therapy, counselors do a lot of talking and writing with the patient to focus on the belief systems he or she is forming as a result of the trauma and how to challenge those beliefs.
"The VA has found a group of treatments for trauma that the research shows works best, and that's what we're using at the Tucson VA," Moore said.
In a prolonged exposure treatment, a patient talks about the MST experience in every session as if it was happening repeatedly and must reveal every detail. The idea behind this program is to reduce anxiety. With this type of therapy, Moore explained the goal is to help victims find normalcy in their lives again as they learn to cope with the painful emotions and come to realize the trauma is over and the memories cannot hurt them.
Two other specific programs the Tucson VA offers are "Seeking Safety," which is a dual treatment to address trauma, and substance or alcohol abuse and dialectical behavioral therapy -- offered to patients who need intensive, prolonged therapy.
For Stacy Picciano, Fort Huachuca garrison SHARP sexual assault response coordinator, Moore's information was eye-opening.
"There was information about veterans that I didn't know about," Picciano said. "[There were] details about what the VA offers that aren't made public."
While the VA offers group therapy and one-on-one treatment options, another option that caught Picciano's attention was the VA video teleconferencing to get counseling from home. The Tucson VA has MST treatment options for both men and women and has specific therapy groups for each. Moore pointed out that men can also be victims of MST.
In 2012, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 military men and women were sexually assaulted; however only 3,300 of them were documented, and about 10 percent led to prosecutions.