On a recent trip to visit my in-laws, I was very happy to find that I had time to relax and read the paper in the morning. For me, the joy is found in reading the comics and completing the word search. So you can imagine my surprise when I sat down to read the comics and found that Doonesbury was discussing a very serious public health issue- sexual assault and harassment in the military. Apparently this storyline has been playing itself out in a series that follows Roz (a female soldier who is worried and seeking help for her friend Melissa). Melissa is being reassigned so that a superior officer can "prey" on her.
According to the Veterans Administration (VA) website, "Both women and men can experience sexual harassment or sexual assault during their military service. VA refers to these experiences as military sexual trauma, or MST". Like other types of trauma, MST can negatively impact a person's mental and physical health, even many years later. Every VA facility has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. Here I'll give a shout out to my favorite public health social worker, Micaela Cohen, who is the field and program development coordinator for the national military sexual trauma program at the VA.
Obviously, sexual assault is a serious public health issue, as it can put soldiers and veterans at a higher risk for negative health effects, such as depression. MST can also affect the rate at which health services are utilized. A recent study published in the journal Women's Health Issues reported that, "the under utilization of specialized PTSD services by younger women could be due, in part, to the fact that a significant proportion of PTSD in female veterans is associated with a history of military sexual abuse. Women with a history of military sexual trauma may not feel comfortable either in mixed-gender groups or using services in which treatment is oriented primarily toward combat-related PTSD."
For years, Doonesbury's author- Garry Trudeau, has been taking these types of statistics and important global issues and using them to shape his comic strip. For example, in 2006, he had his character B.D. wounded as he served in Iraq. In a 2007 interview with Military.com about the storyline, Mr. Trudeau stated, "I originally considered having him die in combat, but I concluded that while that might have caused a brief sensation, it would soon be forgotten. In the alternative, by giving B.D. a life-altering wound, I could set in motion a sustained story arc that tracked the arduous recovery and readjustment issues that a survivor might expect to face. "
Although public health practitioners may come across stories and statistics about the health issues and challenges faced by our service members everyday...the general population does not. And even if they do, I'm not sure that they would feel comfortable talking about it. Therefore, I think that inserting public health and social justice issues into the comics is an innovative idea. The comics are a "familiar" section in the newspaper to readers of all ages. We get to know the characters and follow them for years or even decades. The characters can give us a shared and "safe" way to discuss difficult issues. I just hope that as newspapers continue to struggle and more of us are reading our news online...that we don't forget to read the comics! It might not always be a laugh...it might be something even more important.