Science has finally proven what military families already know and many others have long suspected - frequent deployments are hard on spouses and indirectly harder on marriages as a whole.
In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found evidence that the wives of deployed Soldiers were, "more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other mental health conditions," than wives whose spouses weren't deployed.
"We're living in an unprecedented time in history," said Dr. Bridget Cantrell, a mental health provider for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Program. "No wonder Army spouses are suffering. Military life in general is already filled with anxiety and many unknowns. Add multiple lengthy deployments and you have families in crisis on many levels."
Researchers analyzed medical outpatient records of more than 250,000 wives of active duty Army personnel (both deployed and non-deployed) between 2003 and 2006. Results indicated that spouses suffered more sleepless nights, acute stress and adjustment disorders as a result of a Servicemember's deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. It also reflected increased diagnoses of mental health conditions among wives of Soldiers deployed for a year or longer.
"Longer deployments and more frequent cycles means longer depression," said Cantrell, who hopes the study will encourage more wives to seek treatment.
The author of Once a Warrior: Wired for Life (2007) and Souls under Siege: The Effects of Multiple Troop Deployments and how to Weather the Storm (2007), Cantrell is also the founder and CEO of Hearts Toward Home International - a non-profit organization dedicated to the recovery and reintegration of veterans and trauma survivors. She also trains mental and healthcare professionals about veteran deployment transition.
"There are so many things that affect spouses of deployed Soldiers," she said. "They become single parents, have to manage the household and many work. A spouse's age and maturity, the number and ages of children, relationship trust, and support systems are huge factors, too."
Though depression can manifest in different ways, such as a disheveled appearance, alcoholism, withdrawal and aggressive and erratic behaviors, Cantrell said the worst thing spouses can do is to think they can handle it alone. "If you don't want to get help, nothing will work for you," she said. "Get out, take a cooking class, get your nails done, go to church, play soccer, talk to the chaplain, but practice positive self-care. Being proactive is an important factor in coping, and asking for help is not weakness."
Whatever you do, don't give up on yourself. Something as simple as finding what you love and sharing that gift with others can keep you connected, Cantrell advised. Whether or not there are kids at home, spouses should seek help before their Soldier returns.
"Women will give oxygen masks to others before themselves on a doomed plane," she said. "We're natural caregivers. Still, we must care for ourselves."
For more information, visit www.heartstowardhome.com or call Cantrell at (360) 714-1525.