Military sexual trauma workshop aims to educate mental health professionals

CRYSTAL LAKE – Approximately one in three women, and 1 percent of men, in the military have experienced a sexual assault, according to the Department of Defense.

That alarming statistic has created concern among many in the United States military, and health professionals in McHenry County are taking steps to become better educated on military sexual abuses.

The McHenry County Mental Health Board, along with the Lake-McHenry Veterans and Family Services, hosted a military sexual trauma workshop Friday for mental health professionals.

The workshop focused on the unique needs associated with military sexual trauma, and educated health professionals on how to effectively counsel someone who has experienced a sexual assault.

“Hopefully we can empower our mental health providers here today to know what they can do to be veteran friendly and be a safe place for veterans to come,” said Laura Gallagher Watkin, the director of veteran programs for Health & Disability Advocates in Chicago.

Watkin said military members who experience a sexual assault often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideations, and other psychological disorders, and it's important to understand the unique circumstances that come with a military sexual assault.

“A military sexual trauma can be very different than rape or sexual assault in a civilian setting,” Watkin said. “A lot of the people who've had that happen to them, this is their career. It's all they've ever wanted to be. … Sometimes a military sexual trauma can really derail that.”

Anna Sobecki, a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, works as a Uniform Victim Advocate and works with military members who have been sexually assaulted.

“To see my brothers and sisters being hurt by others in this way, it's against everything I've been taught, and everything I am as a Marine,” Sobecki said. “I have to do the right thing and take a stance and start educating others about this program.”

Sobecki said that sexually assaulted military personnel often try to forget or brush off the attack, as they fear admitting it would hurt his or her status in the military.

“They will never admit that there is a problem,” she said. “The stereotypical thought is that they are seen as weak. They won't be able to perform their duties or be in charge of military members underneath them because they are 'broke.' It's OK to be broke. It's OK to heal. That's the biggest thing we're trying to educate to everybody.”

The daylong workshop included several discussions from military and health care professionals, a viewing of "The Invisible War," an Academy Award nominated documentary on military sexual trauma, and a panel discussion from a military sexual assault survivor who explained the problems she had accessing mental health services.

“We want to create a community that can embrace our veterans and really help them,” Watkin said.

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