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Oct 30, 2011 – 8:03 PM ET

Women in the Canadian Forces are significantly more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress and depression than male troops, suggests a new study that points to key psychological differences between the uniform-wearing sexes — even as the military lines between them are blurred.

The female soldiers, sailors and air force personnel were actually less likely to have encountered combat or other trauma during a foreign deployment than men — but more likely to have witnessed domestic violence as children or faced sexual trauma and spousal abuse, researchers at the University of Manitoba concluded.

Men in the Forces, on the other hand, are more apt to hit the bottle in a serious way, they reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

The findings do not explain why the differences exist, but the study cites one theory that military women could face additional pressures because, as still a relatively small minority, they are treated as outsiders and routinely face stereotyping.

Sheila Hellstrom, a retired brigadier general, said the study does not surprise her, noting that women in the forces often fill dual roles at home and work that can make the unpredictable life more stressful.

“It’s still difficult for women to a certain extent, because they’re still supposed to be the caregivers,” said Gen. Hellstrom, based in Ottawa. “Usually if they’re in a relationship, they’re the ones who take the most stress when they’re told to deploy … If you’re posted somewhere on short notice, there are disruptions you have to deal with.”

Sexual harassment in the military is also a fact of life women have to deal with, she added.

The researchers suggest their findings should be heeded closely by mental-health professionals who work with female military personnel. They emphasize, though, that the study simply sheds light on the distinction between men and the women who make up a growing part of the Forces, and says nothing about the relative fitness of females to serve.

“There is some concern about stigmatizing women in the military,” said Dr. Jitender Sareen, a psychiatry professor and consultant at a Veterans Affairs operational-stress injury clinic. “We couldn’t say whether men or women … are more likely to suffer PTSD under combat stress.”

The researchers, who also include Natalie Mota, a doctoral student in psychology, say the study was prompted in part by the burgeoning number of women in the Canadian Forces. The 13,000 female personnel make up about 15% of the total. And another new study, reported by the National Post last week, found they are playing an increasing role in combat, with 310 Canadian women deployed to Afghanistan in the infantry and other fighting roles in 2001-11, more than triple the proportion that had combat jobs in the 1990s.

The University of Manitoba study analysed results from the Canadian Forces segment of a national mental health survey, which questioned more than 8,000 regular force and reserve troops.

It found that women were significantly more likely to suffer major depression, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder, with the differences wider among members of the reserves – part-time troops. Men were about three times as likely to have an alcohol dependence.

While it is possible that women face unique stressors in the military, it is also conceivable that they enter the Forces with an increased vulnerability to mental disorders, the researchers say.

Even when factors such as age, rank and exposure to violence and other traumatic events were factored out of the study’s results, it seemed that women had more problems like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, they concluded.

Gen. Hellstsrom speculated that responses to the survey may also have been affected by the fact that women are more open about discussing mental-health issues, while a male soldier may be “unwilling to say how he feels because he would not be looked at as macho guy.”