Association of combatant status and sexual violence with health and mental health outcomes in postconflict Liberia

JAMA. 2008 Aug 13;300(6):676-90. doi: 10.1001/jama.300.6.676.


Context: Liberia's wars since 1989 have cost tens of thousands of lives and left many people mentally and physically traumatized.

Objectives: To assess the prevalence and impact of war-related psychosocial trauma, including information on participation in the Liberian civil wars, exposure to sexual violence, social functioning, and mental health.

Design, setting, and participants: A cross-sectional, population-based, multistage random cluster survey of 1666 adults aged 18 years or older using structured interviews and questionnaires, conducted during a 3-week period in May 2008 in Liberia.

Main outcome measures: Symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social functioning, exposure to sexual violence, and health and mental health needs among Liberian adults who witnessed or participated in the conflicts during the last 2 decades.

Results: In the Liberian adult household-based population, 40% (95% confidence interval [CI], 36%-45%; n = 672/1659) met symptom criteria for MDD, 44% (95% CI, 38%-49%; n = 718/1661) met symptom criteria for PTSD, and 8% (95% CI, 5%-10%; n = 133/1666) met criteria for social dysfunction. Thirty-three percent of respondents (549/1666) reported having served time with fighting forces, and 33.2% of former combatant respondents (182/549) were female. Former combatants experienced higher rates of exposure to sexual violence than noncombatants: among females, 42.3% (95% CI, 35.4%-49.1%) vs 9.2% (95% CI, 6.7%-11.7%), respectively; among males, 32.6% (95% CI, 27.6%-37.6%) vs 7.4% (95% CI, 4.5%-10.4%). The rates of symptoms of PTSD, MDD, and suicidal ideation were higher among former combatants than noncombatants and among those who experienced sexual violence vs those who did not. The prevalence of PTSD symptoms among female former combatants who experienced sexual violence (74%; 95% CI, 63%-84%) was higher than among those who did not experience sexual violence (44%; 95% CI, 33%-53%). The prevalence of PTSD symptoms among male former combatants who experienced sexual violence was higher (81%; 95% CI, 74%-87%) than among male former combatants who did not experience sexual violence (46%; 95% CI, 39%-52%). Male former combatants who experienced sexual violence also reported higher rates of symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation. Both former combatants and noncombatants experienced inadequate access to health care (33.0% [95% CI, 22.6%-43.4%] and 30.1% [95% CI, 18.7%-41.6%], respectively).

Conclusions: Former combatants in Liberia were not exclusively male. Both female and male former combatants who experienced sexual violence had worse mental health outcomes than noncombatants and other former combatants who did not experience exposure to sexual violence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Combat Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Health Status*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Liberia / epidemiology
  • Mental Health*
  • Middle Aged
  • Military Personnel / psychology
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prevalence
  • Sex Offenses / psychology
  • Sex Offenses / statistics & numerical data*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / epidemiology*
  • Veterans / psychology
  • Veterans / statistics & numerical data*
  • Warfare*