Female veterans say hardest part of mental health struggle is asking for help

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Maxton, North Carolina — Sharjuan Burgos is taking a leap of faith, skydiving with the Army's Golden Knights Parachute Team. But it's nothing compared to the leap the retired Army major took when she sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The hardest part for me was seeking mental health treatment the first time," Burgos told CBS News. "Sometimes making that first step into a facility or even just seeking treatment is the hardest thing you'll ever do."

Nearly 12% of female veterans experience PTSD — almost double the rate of their male counterparts, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Women also have higher rates of depression and eating disorders, according to Military Medicine. In 2018, the suicide rate for female veterans was almost twice that of women who did not serve, RAND Corporation found.

These Golden Knights jumps are about raising awareness of the mental health challenges women veterans face.

It's something former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch knows firsthand. Lynch was taken prisoner after her convoy was ambushed by Iraqi troops in 2003 and rescued by U.S. Special Forces days later. She told CBS News it was "absolutely" hard to ask for help.

"I felt like my story had been so kind of well-known that I didn't want to, kind of, add on top of what I already went through," she said." It was probably a good 10 years before I even came out and said that I had PTSD. … I never really spoke about those inner demons that eat at you."

Since retiring from the Army, Burgos has focused on helping her fellow vets get the help they need, working as the outreach director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Its 21 clinics have treated more than 30,000 service members, veterans and their families.

"Sometimes you may have to reach your hand out and grab them through and let them know that it's OK," Burgos said.

While women make up about 10% of all veterans, they are 30% of the vets treated by Cohen Veterans Network.

"We think that's because female veterans are more willing to seek treatment," Tracy Neal-Walden, chief clinical officer for Cohen Veterans Network, told CBS News.

"Female veterans are very resilient," she said. "Oftentimes there's more of an emphasis on taking care of those other daily needs and taking care of the other people in the family. And so that's why the symptoms may go untreated for many years."

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