Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Psychiatric Diagnosis Used to Call Military Rape Victims “Sick”

Sexually assaulted servicewomen labeled mentally ill

©2011 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

Sexually assaulted servicewomen labeled mentally ill

Think you'd heard it all? Being sexually assaulted apparently is not enough. The Service Women's Action Network reports that it is receiving reports from women serving in the United States military or attending service academies who, after being sexually assaulted and reporting what happened, are diagnosed almost immediately afterward by military therapists as having personality disorders. [http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GSN/message/40367]

This is not a diagnosis that has the slightest relationship to the assault, certainly is not a label applied with the intention of describing a consequence of being raped. A personality disorder is considered to be a lifelong maladaptive organization of the entire personality, so it would have preceded the assault.

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Why does this matter? Let me count the ways. First, it takes the focus off the perpetrator, because the victim who is supposedly mentally ill, and, by applying a personality disorder label, takes the focus off the assault and its consequences, placing it instead on the victim's life way before the time of the attack. Readers of my blog know I am no fan of psychiatric diagnosis in general, but if you want to diagnose an assault victim, how about choosing a label that is connected with the effects of assault, reflecting terror, despair, hypervigilance, hopelessness?

This also matters because, as if being assaulted is not enough to have to bear, now the victim has the added burden of being told she is mentally ill, with all of the shame and fearfulness associated with that, and it makes the attack itself seem so diminished in importance that she may wonder if it really happened or at least if she is over-reacting.

Furthermore, personality disorder diagnoses have been used by the military before now to try to get rid of people it no longer wants. In the same way that family members of someone who reports that a relative sexually assaulted them may try to eject the victim rather than deal with confronting and punishing the perpetrator, so some people with power in the military and in military academies want to do the same.

Finally, applying these diagnoses can be a way to ensure that victims do not receive Veterans Affairs benefits for the care they ask for in order to recover from the emotional effects of the assaults, because whatever they are feeling is alleged to be attributable to their alleged personality disorders rather than to what happened to them in the military.

This is the kind of practice of which few Americans are aware, and its existence is a manifestation of what should properly be called some form of sickness that needs eradication.

 

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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