Findings from a team of federal and university researchers indicate that female veterans involved in the criminal justice system have a much higher rate of exposure to mental health-related problems than their male counterparts, but a lower rate of exposure to substance-related problems.
Men and women returning from military service have significant chances of engaging in criminal behavior that results in some form of incarceration. Mental health issues and substance problems often play a substantial role in veterans’ incarceration risks. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal Medical Care, researchers from several federal and public institutions compared the rate of substance and mental health problems found among incarcerated female veterans to the rate found among incarcerated male veterans.
Veterans, Mental Health and Substance Use
There are over 23 million military veterans living in the U.S. While some of these veterans are older individuals who served in the 1970s or earlier, many have a more recent history of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a whole, veterans share a range of risk factors for mental health problems with the general public, including exposure to major accidents, sexual assaults and many other events and situations capable of triggering a traumatic stress response. Veterans also have mental health risks stemming from factors not frequently found in the rest of the civilian population, including combat exposure and combat-related brain injuries.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have a combined depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rate of almost 19 percent, according to figures reported by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The traumatic brain injury rate among these veterans approaches 20 percent. In addition, veteran servicemen and servicewomen have a relatively high rate of problematic substance use and exposure to diagnosable symptoms of drug or alcohol abuse/addiction. SAMHSA notes that in 2009, diagnosable substance problems and other mental health issues were the primary underlying reasons for service-related hospitalizations.
Veterans and the Criminal Justice System
Once they return to the civilian world, veterans of military service typically have training that, in combination with mental health problems and substance abuse/addiction, can significantly increase the chances of committing a crime and being incarcerated in a jail, state prison or federal prison. Underlying this situation is a tendency to use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication for emotional/psychological issues, and inappropriate or excessive substance consumption is the single most common uniting characteristic among justice-involved veterans. No one really knows how many veterans are currently held in a jail or prison. However, studies conducted in the last few years point to a statistically high number of older veterans in America’s prison populations.
Do Female Veterans Have Higher Risks?
In the study published in Medical Care, researchers from institutions including the federal Center for Innovation to Implementation, the federal Quality Enhancement Research Initiative and the University of Colorado used information gathered between 2010 and 2012 from 32,013 veterans to compare the rate of mental health problems and substance problems found among incarcerated female veterans to the rate found among incarcerated male veterans. Data for this project came from a federal initiative called Veterans Justice Outreach. The participant group included 1,503 women. The researchers assessed justice-involved veterans of both genders for PTSD, major depression and other diagnosable mental health issues, as well as for alcohol abuse/addiction and other diagnosable substance problems. In addition, the researchers compared the odds that incarcerated veterans of each gender would receive appropriate treatment for their mental health- or substance-related ailments.
The researchers concluded that 88 percent of all female veterans incarcerated in a jail or prison have some form of diagnosable mental illness. In contrast, just 76 percent of all male veterans in a jail or prison have a diagnosable mental health issue. All told, compared to the average incarcerated male veteran, the average incarcerated female veteran has almost double the chance of qualifying for a mental health diagnosis. The researchers also concluded that female veterans in a jail or prison are considerably less likely than their male counterparts to have diagnosable problems with drugs or alcohol (58 percent of the incarcerated population vs. 72 percent). Finally, the researchers concluded that incarcerated female veterans with mental health problems receive appropriate care roughly 31 percent less often than their male counterparts.