What the Military Community Is Saying About Deployments and Mental Health

October 30, 2018

Photo: U.S. Air Force. Senior Airman Rebecca Van Syoc

I don’t know about you, but my social media accounts often seem like a daily reminder of what random thing I should be recognizing. While October has some fun days of national celebration–looking at you, National Chocolate Day (10/26)–this month also highlights some heavy issues.

Pink is everywhere, so most people know that it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but did you know it is also Domestic Violence Awareness month? Did you know that October 15 was National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day? With all of these hurricanes and typhoons, Mother Nature certainly didn’t get the memo about the International Day for Disaster Reduction (10/13). Oh, and FYI for those of us whose spouses have or will deploy this year, October 26 is the National Day of the Deployed. All of these issues are stressful, so I suppose it is only appropriate that October 10 is World Mental Health Day.

In honor of World Statistics Day (10/20), this month merits a deeper dive into what you told us about how some of these issues impact military and veteran families. Our annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey (#BSFSurvey) is the largest of its kind, so although most critical issues make it into our annual comprehensive report, many don’t. Let’s take a look two of those issues now: mental health and deployment.

Mental Health

Military families face the same life stressors as everyone else but they are often compounded by military life demands. Calibrating a new work-life balance after having a baby is tough for everyone; doing it on the back-end of a PCS with limited extended family support, a six-month childcare waitlist, and in a brand new locale is nothing short of miraculous. Coming to terms with and supporting an ailing parent is mentally and emotionally draining for everyone; doing it from a FOB in Afghanistan is heart-wrenching. This helps explain why in the 2017 #BSFSurvey, veteran, veteran spouse, and military spouse respondents reported a higher prevalence of mental health challenges than the broader U.S. population. Thirty percent of respondents reported they had been diagnosed with anxiety and 26 percent with depression.

Invisible wounds are real. Veteran respondents named PTSD/combat stress/ TBI as a top five military life issue in 2017, and of those caregiver respondents who reported caring for someone with emotional or mental health problems, the majority reported having been diagnosed with anxiety (53%) or depression (45%). There is a common misperception, however, that PTSD is the only cause for these and other mental health diagnoses and… well…no.

That misperception somehow manages to both stigmatize those with invisible wounds or secondary PTSD AND minimize the experience of those who are also struggling with non-PTSD-related mental health issues.

This is a tough life. Spouse unemployment and underemployment rates remain high. In 2017, only 47 percent of military spouse respondents reported they were employed, and of those 55 percent indicated they were underemployed…talk about a blow to self-esteem. Sixty-seven percent of military family respondents indicated they cannot reliably obtain childcare… so much for keeping the boss happy and sanity in tact. Forty percent of military family respondents said they had endured six or more months of family separation in the last 18 months…solo parenting is just a breeze, let me tell you.

So here is the deal — we hear you. We recognize your sacrifice and know that you have good days and bad days. Caregivers, you rock. Spouses, you rock. Service members, you rock. Veterans, you rock. If you are struggling to balance life and your mental health, know that there are some great resources available for you. Check them out via Military One Source and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Caregivers — Blue Star Families has partnered with the United Health Foundation to bring you Blue Star Cares; check it out for special tools and resources designed especially for you.

Deployment

In the 2017 #BSFSurvey, “time away from home” and “the impact of deployment on my children” were both top five military life issues among military spouses and service members, and “deployments” was a top five stressor for both groups. Seventy-two percent of military family respondents indicated they “feel the current optempo exerts an unacceptable level of stress” and (as I mentioned above) 40 percent of respondents’ said their service member was gone for at least six months in the previous year and a half.

Deployments are probably the most obvious event the general public associates with military life. This is why it always surprises me to hear friends talk about how their civilian families seem so caught off guard when a deployment is announced. The civilian-military gap is real and those of us who are civilian spouses traverse that gap almost every day. While there is certainly more others can do to help raise awareness around military life issues, on October 26, we can share deployment stories that go beyond homecoming. Own your story, bridge the gap.

These two topics are extremely important in the military community… and they’re often overlooked. That’s why taking the #BSFSurvey is so important. We want–and need!–your stories so we can share what’s happening in military communities across the country. You can find out more about the #BSFSurvey here and why it’s so important to the military community.

By Jennifer Akin, MPA | Applied Research Analyst & Consultant