War’s Silent Stress: The Family at Home

depressionWar’s Silent Stress: The Family at Home originally appeared on the Opinion page of the Virginian Pilot on August 9, 2009.

MUCH LIKE the news of servicemen killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, last month’s news of the death of a military spouse at Ft. Bragg made only local headlines.

A 40-year-old Army wife, who was four months pregnant, was found dead of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The woman had called 911 with threats of hurting herself, but the police arrived too late. Her husband is an Army sergeant who worked in Civil Affairs and had been deployed multiple times.

When the news broke, there was a short burst of e-mail traffic among the leadership of Blue Star Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of military spouses working to promote awareness of the myriad issues facing today’s military families.

“I don’t know why I find this so surprising but the story says she was 40,” wrote the wife of a Special Forces NCO. “I guess I assumed that someone in that state of despair would be younger — like maybe she’d have better coping skills at 40.”

The majority of the Blue Star Families members are veterans of three, four and five deployments, and at least one member has endured eight deployments in the past seven years. Often these deployments last well beyond a year, as anniversaries, holidays, births and birthdays tick by, never to be celebrated together.

My husband, a recently retired Marine Corps officer, deployed only once in the five years we have been married. A difficult seven months, but it was, after all, only one deployment.

Post-conflict disorder and depression are being addressed by our military for the service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan. But the effects of these deployments on spouses and families are just beginning to get some attention. While statistics on depression and mental illness among military spouses are not available, some Blue Star members are openly surprised that suicide among the spouses of deployed troops is not more prevalent. In fact, the stereotypical overwhelmed military spouse is 19 to 22 years old, the wife of a junior enlisted service member, whose ranks make up almost 44 percent of our active duty military. Many of these spouses have very young children, are far removed from extended family, are on a limited and usually single income — approximately $1,500 per month for a family of four — and few have the coping skills that come with age and experience. But mental health experts remind us that depression knows no boundaries — not age, income level or military rank.

Sadly, last month’s tragedy was not an isolated incident, though news stories about suicides can be hard to find because many media outlets honor an old journalism standard of not reporting suicides. On Nov. 28, 2006, police in Fayetteville, N.C., discovered a 39-year-old mother and her two children dead inside the family car. The mother had killed herself and her two young children with carbon monoxide poisoning. Although no one knows what went through her mind when she climbed inside the vehicle and strapped her two children into their car seats, the military wife had a history of postpartum depression. Nonetheless, she was described as a positive and upbeat woman who mostly kept to herself. Her husband, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, had been deployed to Iraq just two months before, just after the birth of the couple’s daughter.

A few members of Blue Star Families’ leadership have admitted to being treated for depression. One member said that the combination of her husband’s three recent heavy-combat tours to the dangerous Helmand Province of Afghanistan and the stress of taking care of two young children led her to deep despair, thoughts of suicide and hopelessness and, eventually, to a depression diagnosis and a prescription for Wellbutrin.

She described how military spouses get addicted to news reports during deployments, despite knowing the information will make them miserable. The Internet allows the family to catch every bit of reporting on the area where their soldier, Marine, airman or sailor is deployed. This has the effect of almost putting the spouse into combat with them. “There is nothing as intense as doing a Google search to find out if the love of your life, the father of your children, is dead or alive,” she said. While the family member can be literally paralyzed with worry, she also must raise kids, work, pay bills and deal with the sometimes infuriating and insensitive comments of civilians around her.

Officers and senior NCO’s are trained to detect Combat Stress Disorder in their men and women serving in combat. Often a precursor to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a crippling mental state, the men or women who show signs of combat stress are given rest, a good hot meal, a DVD or book and a strong verbal reminder that they are going back into the fight after their short break. Unlike the military, their spouses are not trained to detect symptoms of depression, burn-out or what another generation called “combat fatigue” — in themselves or each other.

Thankfully, much already is being done to help military families. There is a push for more mental health counselors on bases. Teams of Military Family Life Consultants funded by the Department of Defense are available to all services. They provide counseling to service members and their families, and there is no chain of command notification and no paperwork. Nonetheless, many spouses — even in the Blue Star leadership — have never heard of these services.

In addition, studies are beginning to surface about Secondary PTSD — a mental health issue that has been lurking around in this country since at least the Vietnam War. Secondary PTSD has shown up when the spouse and/or family respond to their changed environment with anger, substance abuse or violence, replacing a peaceful and loving home life. Repeatedly, Blue Star Families have found with so many of the good programs out there, the challenge is letting families know what is available.

Now more than ever, communication is key. As media reports query the long range effects of multiple deployments on children, and with the increased awareness for detecting and treating PTSD in our military, it is time to close the loop on mental health and our military families and begin talking about the potentially harmful effects of repeated longterm deployments on the spouses of our service members.

Civilian or military, the first step to help for depression is talking about it.

Rosemary Freitas Williams is a director of communications for Alexandria-based Blue Star Families, whose members on 70 military bases work to educate those who make decisions about military life and its unique challenges.

10 Responses

  1. This is a great article and is on a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. I’m so glad it’s finally being brought to light that the families of deployed service members are not going through that experience unscathed. As the wife of a National Guardsman who’s undergone two overseas deployments in three years, there have been many times where I would have just liked to have someone to talk to who could understand what I was going through, but being National Guard, I’m miles away from any of the other wives in my husband’s unit, and have never met any of them anyway. I’m very interested to know more about the Military Family Life Consultants and what they can do for the military spouse and family.

  2. Coping skills for stresses of this magnitude are not natural –they’re learned from people who have been in your shoes. But more than that, they’re practiced and talked about with a group or a supportive individual on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.

    There’s a good reason I put a widget for NAMI at the top of my milspouse blog. The struggle to erase the stigma on mental health has been a long one, and it’s one that all of us can help to greatly alleviate.
    I was introduced to NAMI 12 years ago, when it came time to find assistance in trying to gain understanding about two mentally ill in-laws and later, to find help for an autistic son. The skills I learned helped me greatly in assisting others in the surgical practice we ran. and all this was way before getting into Planet Military. So I am very aware for the need of quick and compassionate assistance that’s free within one’s community. I love their Saturday support groups.

    I can’t recommend them enough.
    My condolences to the families of those you mentioned in the article above. A preventable death(s) in both cases. We need to call it as it is, and say Mental Health needs to be treated as any other medical ailment –as something to be recognized and treated.
    No Shame = Treatment Gained

  3. would it be possible for some of us retired wives to help with these wives, I would be happy to help someone, be it take the children for an hour, shop with them, etc. I think it is the lonliness and lack of appreciation for what the families go through that makes people feel taken for granted, We need to rally and help these families, in the way that people thank our soldiers now, they also need to help the families.

  4. Beth, Kanani, Sue, thank you for your comments. If you’d like more info, email me and I’ll connect you with the author. Of course, we’d love it if you’d like to get involved with BSF too.

    Steph
    stephanie@bluestarfam.org

  5. I’d be happy to send you my writing and editing rate sheet, Steph!

  6. Not enough can be said about the mutual support groups. Blue Star Moms, Moms groups on line, and even Facebook are helping this Mom cope -along with medication to help me sleep- I strongly believe in better living throuh chemistry :)

  7. Great article. As amental health provider I have been dealing with families and veterans and especially the mental helath issues are ignored or played down by people because it is unseen. I am also the sister of ritired service men and remember watching and waiting while they were deployed. I fortunately as a mental health provider have developed my own coping so as not to get secondary or vicarious traumtization from watching or hearing stories of trauma.
    Thank you Ro for addressing this in a public forum.

  8. Having been raised by a single mom who had 4 kids, I saw first hand the strength that it takes to make it work. Although she may not have been aware, she was teaching us all coping skills and internal strength. Although she worked long hours, she still managed to come home, cook dinner and take care of us. It wasn’t perfect or Leave it to Beaver, but it was us and we were happy. We all need to continue to learn coping skills and not be afraid to ask for help. She’s always the first person that I call when I don’t think that I have the strength anymore because I know that she’ll understand something that other people don’t. We need to reach out to each other and be there for each other so please don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not weak or helpless, just human.

  9. Over all, I am glad there is light being shown on this very important issue. However, I think that one of the problems here is institutional. It is not just the military which expects spouses to be able to handle 4 kids, 4 deployments, and make a perfect bundt cake; it’s other military spouses, as exemplified by the quote: “I guess I assumed that someone in that state of despair would be younger — like maybe she’d have better coping skills at 40.”
    The one thing I remember from my husband’s first deployment was how judgmental other military spouses were of my inability to pretend everything was peachy when I didn’t feel it was. I was told point blank to “suck it up and drive on”. By not honoring what other spouses are feeling, regardless of age, spouses’ rank, etc, we further isolate military families from support.
    I don’t care if you are 18 or 50, have 5 kids or 0, this is the first or 100th deployment, it’s brutal to go through and I think it is high time that we allow people to be honest about what they are feeling instead of being told constantly to “suck it up and drive on.”
    I am truly sorry it took a woman’s life to shed light on the high prices military families pay in these wars.

  10. Sorry, Kanani. At the moment, BSF is an all volunteer force. Although we’re all professionals, we’re all volunteering our time. We’re a non-profit organization and we’re just getting started with fundraising. If you’re interested in getting involved on a volunteer basis, please let me know.

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