Brian Klassen, PhD: Military Sexual Trauma—Challenges and Effective Treatments

Providers in the Road Home Program got involved with treating men and women who have suffered military sexual trauma out of necessity as the need was enormous. In the two-week intensive program, survivors of MST receive many effective treatments, in particular cognitive processing therapy where they can finally open up about their experiences in a safe place and redirect blame away from themselves. And being in a cohort of other MST survivors makes this program unique and incredibly effective.

Brian Klassen, PhD, is the Clinical Director of the Road Home Program, part of the Wounded Warrior Project's Warrior Care Network.

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We got involved in treating military sexual trauma at Rush mostly out of necessity because the need is so great. And I think folks with military sexual trauma, and this is men and women, by the way, have such a hard time accessing resources and accessing a level of care like we provide at Rush. I think it’s possible to get services as outpatient, I think it’s possible to go into residential programs. But an intensive outpatient program for military sexual trauma so you’re in a cohort with other survivors of military sexual trauma, I routinely hear that this is something unique that is not available anywhere else in the country. We have learned that there are a few effective elements in the treatment of military sexual trauma. First is that a cognitive processing therapy perspective or the principles of cognitive processing therapy are incredibly helpful in treating military sexual trauma. Because a lot of veterans who are survivors of MST have many of those “should have, could have, would have” beliefs. Like this happened to me because I drank too much or I wore the wrong thing or I sent signals that I was interested, but I wasn’t. And I think going back and really helping them reprocess that event and also like accurately assign blame, too. Because it’s very interesting. Early in the process of treatment, when you ask veterans who are survivors of MST, who is to blame for what happened to you, who do you fault for this? Almost universally they’ll say it was 100 percent my fault - end of story. And it’s interesting because the longer you go in that process, you can ask them the same question and there’s a switch that flips eventually to say, you know, it was my officer, it was my friend, it was my peer. Like I was assaulted because somebody assaulted me; not because I wore the wrong thing. And so the principles of cognitive processing therapy, I think are incredibly helpful. I think the second thing I’d say that is helpful for the treatment of military sexual trauma is having a cohort of other survivors. Like I said before, this is something that’s pretty unique. It’s not available everywhere. And so I think military sexual trauma is such a stigmatized condition that people often feel alone. People hide what they’ve been through - they don't talk about with anybody. We have several instances in our program where even spouses don't know about a person’s trauma history, the people closest, most intimately connected with you don't know your history. Part of the stigma of military sexual trauma is that dynamic of the military of “I need to be self-sufficient, I need to be strong.” That sort of like “suck it up, buttercup” kind of mentality. You know, that coupled with - which I think is getting better, sort of the lack of institutional mechanisms of reporting. That’s a very fraught process, but a lot of it is internal stigma and just the culture. But you get into a military sexual trauma cohort, you’re around other survivors, and amazing things can happen when you start to open up.

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Posted on BrainLine October 11, 2021. Reviewed October 11, 2021.

About the author: Brian Klassen, PhD

Brian Klassen, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director for The Road Home Program: The National Center of Excellence for Veterans and Their Families at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. Brian spent his formative years training at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, completing rotations in chronic pain management, residential substance use disorder treatment, and PTSD. Brian has special expertise in providing front-line treatments for PTSD, including Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy.

Headshot of Dr. Brian Klassen