Children, Spouses of Military Members at Increased Risk for Mental Disorders

Life in the military often comes at a very high price.  Mental health problems sometimes manifest as part of that price.  Mental health and suicide rates among military members have received quite a bit of attention in recent years – and rightly so. Our nation’s vets sacrifice their physical and emotional well-being to protect their families and fellow citizens. However, when it comes to mental health, there’s another group that deserves attention as well: military families.

Mental Health in Military Partners

Living the military life can be challenging for the entire family, especially a non-military partner. Researchers are discovering that those challenges can affect mental health.  Men and women married to deployed military members may be at higher risk for certain psychiatric conditions. For instance, one study of military wives who had deployed husbands suggests the remaining spouses were more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety than wives with non-deployed partners. If you’re a military spouse, your mental health might also be affected by a partner’s violence. Sometimes the violence is overt, such as when a spouse flies into an abusive rage. Other times the violence doesn’t seem deliberate; for example, a veteran experiencing a frightening or violent flashback may strike his or her partner unintentionally. No matter what the source of violence might be, living in a situation in which you fear for your safety can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety and helplessness. Career frustrations also affect a military spouse’s mental health. The lifestyle itself, with frequent moves and repeated deployments, can make it hard for you to work full time or to advance in your career. In fact, the Blue Star Families 2012 Military Family Lifestyle Survey revealed that over half of military spouses who did not work outside the home reported they would like to be employed. If you want to work but can’t, or if you feel underemployed, you may find yourself struggling with anxiety, frustration, helplessness and /or sadness. Another factor that contributes to mental health issues in military spouses is taking on a caregiving role. Over 50,000 American men and women were injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many of the injuries were physical, a significant number were psychological. Many soldiers came home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other challenging mental health conditions. If you’re a military spouse in charge of caring for an injured vet — often in addition to your other responsibilities to family and / or work — you may be at risk for depression. Studies have shown that caregivers report higher levels of depression and a lower quality of life than non-caregivers.

Mental Health in Military Children

Studies bear out the adverse effect that deployment often has on the mental health of military children. Researchers have found a 19% rise in behavioral disorders among kids with a deployed parent. School-aged children who had experienced parental deployment also have a higher risk for developing psychological and social problems. Lack of support and isolation may also contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety in military children. Frequent moves can make it difficult to form long-term friendships. These children may also feel that non-military kids and adults don’t understand what it’s like when a parent is deployed. The 2012 Blue Star survey of military family members revealed that 41% of respondents felt their community did not provide opportunities to support military children.

Treating Mental Health Conditions

Seek therapy. Whether you’re struggling from depression, an anxiety disorder, or another mental health disorder, a skilled therapist can help you start rebuilding your emotional well-being. Depending on your diagnosis, a mental health professional may use one or more therapeutic techniques to help you identify negative emotions and problematic thinking patterns.  You’ll also learn practical strategies to cope with those thoughts and emotions in a productive, healthy way. Take medication if prescribed. While therapy is almost always the first choice of treatment for most mental health disorders, medication is sometimes warranted.  Some people might feel uncomfortable taking medications for mental health issues.  Some worry about the stigma, while others fear that psychiatric drugs will alter their personality. Parents, too, can feel uneasy about giving these medications to their children, as side effects are always a potential problem. However, when it comes to medication, the benefits and costs must always be weighed. In some cases, the side effects of the medication may be less harmful than a condition that goes untreated. If a physician has prescribed medication, talk to him or her about your concerns as well as the risk of potential side effects. Find support from others.  It might seem like you’re alone, but you’re not. Support groups can be a key component of getting your mental health back on track.  Find a support group dedicated to military families or join a self-help group focused on your particular mental health condition. Seek financial advice when necessary. Money problems often play a role in feelings of depression and anxiety.  In the Blue Star survey, 40% of military spouses reported high day-to-day levels of “significant financial stress”. A financial professional can help you develop a plan to tackle money problems, such as crushing debt, and move your finances into the kind of positive situation that will help alleviate at least some of your stress. Get help for sleep problems. Sleep problems like insomnia often accompany many mental health problems, such as depression. They can also contribute to their development.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your physician or mental health professional about things you can do to improve your sleep. While prescription sleep aids can help in the short run, they’re generally not a good long-term solution.  It’s better to learn good sleep habits, such as limiting caffeine, sticking to a regular sleep schedule, and developing good “sleep hygiene” for lasting relief. Practice good eating habits. Symptoms of some conditions, like anxiety, can be reduced with healthy eating habits. For example, eating small portions of healthful foods throughout the day can prevent the blood sugar dives that may increase anxious feelings in those predisposed. Avoiding caffeine – which can exacerbate anxiety – as well as sugary, carb-laden foods can also help you feel better and keep your moods on a more even keel. Exercise regularly.  Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, brisk walking, or swimming laps) is just as effective for depression as antidepressant medication.   In addition to the mood-boosting benefits of regular exercise, you’ll also sleep better, feel less stressed, be healthier, and likely feel more confident.

Treatment Is Critical

Struggling in silence will not improve your mental health and, in many cases, can you’re your symptoms even worse. Mental health professionals have the knowledge, resources, and, when necessary, medical treatments you need to start rebuilding your emotional well-being.  If possible, work with a therapist who’s familiar with the unique challenges of military families.  Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.  Mental health issues are not a sign of weakness – and they are far more common than most people realize.  Don’t let pride or fear keep you from getting the help you need to get your life back on track.

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