I’ve read a plethora of articles recently (specifically here and here) about depression and substance abuse among military spouses. Many of the reactions to this “news” is “Well, duh!” from so many spouses who have experienced stress while being married to a military member.
Do military spouses experience more stress than other spouses?
While I knew what I was getting into when I married my husband, that doesn’t negate the stress I’ve felt over the years. Many spouses have rose-colored glasses and don’t quite comprehend the moving around, deployment, or protocol issues involving rank and military careers.
Military spouses are overwhelmed and unheard, often too scared to reach out for help when they need it most.
Telehealth company Thrivetalk has released a study on the mental health of an often-neglected group: military spouses. And a whopping 66% of survey respondents agree with that statement, saying they often feel ignored by society.
The Department of Defense estimates there are over 1 Million military spouses. During the pandemic, over 50% of military spouses have reduced visiting if their partner lives on base. 84% of respondents said that their feelings of isolation have increased during COVID-19, yet only 23% have received mental health support.
Prairie Conlon, LPC, NCC & Clinical Director of Thrivetalk has a postgraduate degree in military behavioral health and had this to say:
It’s well-documented the mental health challenges veterans face, but now we can see statistics pointing to the toll it takes on military spouses, too.Prairie Conlon, LPC, NCC & Clinical Director of Thrivetalk
What are some of the stressors facing military spouses?
Loss of Career
Many spouses put their careers on hold or terminate their employment altogether when marrying into the military.
It’s difficult to keep resumes updated with gaps of several years due to PCSing, having babies, moving out of the country. At many military installations, the only job options that seem available to spouses are cashiering at the Exchange or bagging groceries at the commissary. While that doesn’t look appealing to many, sometimes the cash flow is needed to support a growing family.
Some careers are more mobile than others. Some spouses become entrepreneurs or get involved with MLMs. And then they have to pack all that up and move every few years, find new clients and contacts.
After experiencing almost every single life stressor on the index during our first two years of marriage, I ended my career as an English professor to stay home and educate my own children. While I don’t regret that decision, I do sometimes feel less-than, especially in social situation when I am just the stay-at-home, homeschooling mom.
It wasn’t much of a choice.
Being married to a military member is sometimes really tough.
And I’m not talking about just deployments and PCS stuff.
My concerns are often very different from my husband’s. I often look at a bigger picture.
I’ve tried the spouse clubs. I’ve tried volunteering. It’s like middle school all over again. I never go to functions. It doesn’t affect my husband’s career, no matter what anyone says, if I’m there or not. No one cares. No one notices.
My husband works with many different people all day, every day. I understand he has a work persona.
I also understand that when he’s home, he’s always on call. He’s had to leave in the middle of the night for emergencies. He’s had to go TDY and missed important family events. He left for deployment on our anniversary.
It’s my job to remind him that he is a father and a husband. Work is not everything.
He also doesn’t like to make decisions at home since he makes so many at work. I’m usually fine making the decisions. I’m confident and efficient. But I sometimes actually want his input or help. I don’t want to nag. I don’t want to have a tantrum about the smelly trash every week. I shouldn’t have to remind him to change the tires before it snows. Sure, I’m in charge of home and homeschool and he works away from home all day. It’s more than a full-time job for me too. I’m never “off duty.” I don’t get an OPR or EPR. I don’t get awards for doing my job.
Our household needs both parents to work well.
I want the kids’ memories to be good ones. I want them to grow up and desire to visit home for the holidays. I struggle every day to develop a healthy family atmosphere.
We’ve chosen to homeschool our four kids, and that relieves a lot of stress involving school. But even in the homeschool community, we’ve sometimes had issues fitting in. Some places followed a traditional school schedule and their activities began before our household goods and homeschool items arrived. We were empty-handed for several weeks.
Finding activities for my kids to participate in has sometimes been hard. Gymnastics was a thing for a while, but taking breaks for months and testing into a class every time we moved took its toll and my kids didn’t feel it was worth trying to keep up.
Overseas family activities are often only available on base and the quality is just really poor with such a monopoly. We decided not to waste our money anymore.
There are few options for teenagers to get part-time jobs – or even drive – when stationed overseas. Overseas education options are DODS or homeschool, occasionally private schools in English might be available.
Of course deployments are hard. Those months away can be scary. It’s hard having a long-distance relationship. It’s hard to feel left behind while the military member is off doing a job keeping our world safe. Communication is often sporadic.
But the preparation for the separation is tough too. Arguments, bitterness, sadness, anger – these feelings are normal and natural, even if they add stress to an already stressful sitation. They help prepare us for a long time apart. We try to distance ourselves so it doesn’t hurt so much.
Then, upon return, the reintregation process can be hard. The spouse has dealt with everything alone for months and feels awkward making room again. Returning to a routine that was normal before the deployment seems weird. The military member has lived a completely different life during deployment and returning to a life and routine at home feels strange.
All of this creates lots of friction – for a long time. Kids find it really hard to understand. They’re just happy to have both parents at home.
It gets really tiresome moving every few years. Some people may think it’s exciting to get to move around, starting over new.
And it was for the first few times.
After 5, 6, 7, or more moves around the world, it gets exhausting.
We lament that we will forever be renters.
My soul longs for a place to call home.
My kids have no hometown. Their memories take place all over and I find it hard to reconcile that sometimes. We don’t have a doorpost with measurements marking the heights of our kids over the years.
After living in one place for 3 years, the kids get antsy, knowing it’s almost time to move on. They have a transcient life.
PCS time is a huge, long process of waiting. Waiting for news, official orders, dates for packing and moving and traveling. Then more waiting. For household goods to arrive. Finding a new place to live. Unpacking, organizing, settling…for just a few years. Until we do it all again.
The first year in a new location is getting to know everything, learning our way around, trying to fit in.
The second year is comfortable, feeling almost like we belong, enjoying everything the area has to offer.
The third year is realizing we’re gonna move soon. We mentally shut down, purging stuff we won’t need in our new location or things we can’t take – like houseplants, outgrown toys, 220 plugs.
Then panic sets in. We realize we’re never gonna see that flower bloom again. This is the last snowfall here for us. We’ll never get to visit there like we planned. It makes me physically ill, grieving because it’s a loss I can’t control.
Then hope peeks through. We wonder where our next location will be. We imagine a nice, big yard with a garden, better than this one. We hope we can find a good kitchen with double ovens. We long for a fireplace since we didn’t have one here. Then we worry about commute times and gas prices. How will I budget when we don’t know the price of utilities and food? Will the new neighbors be nice and welcoming? Will we be able to find a church right away? I worry about how our family will fit in to a new location when we move. Just because our BAH might cover a certain amount, doesn’t mean I want to live in certain areas. We’re not country club people.
I count milestones by which locale we were living when they took their first step, got stitches, learned to ride a bike.
We have to have a different definition of home than most. Home is wherever we’re all together, even if that’s by Skyping during a deployment or in a TLF apartment for a month. Home is where I do the wugga chugga after bathtime. It’s where we read the stories and say the prayers before bedtime.
We count holidays by which kitchen we made Thanksgiving dinner or celebrated a birthday. We usually spend holidays alone or travel, trying to forget it’s a holiday.
Is that the year in Hawaii I had a Blue’s Clues birthday?
My kids lose track of friends when we move away. Those friends grow up, forgetting, losing touch. It makes us sad. We remember. We reminisce the fun moments.
Remember when Natalia and I played at the creek at that park in San Antonio and we caught tadpoles?
I live the losses along with my children. I long for them to have roots. And a place to call home.
It might seem petty to complain about some things, but it’s not like the average spouse has some of these issues. And they are real issues to me.
Moving to new living quarters every few years brings stress with finding a rental that suits us.
Researching areas in a new city within the housing allowance, and calculating expenses within a budget, along with commute times to the military member’s new post is a stressful experience – and usually falls to the spouse alone. Then, there are comforts to purchase to make it home, often with very little money – curtains, rugs, maybe even furniture. Money is always an issue.
I worry about our items in storage. What if they’re damaged or lost? They’re our memories and ties to the past.
I wonder if our lawn mower will work after 3 years in the shed, unused. Will we have unnecessarily moved it across the world twice only to have to buy a new one after all?
Finding a new church is a HUGE issue. I hate church shopping.
I want my kids to have friends, to be able to play and be as normal as possible.
I loathe having to find new dentists and hair stylists. It just sucks.
We seldom seem to fit in. We don’t have family around for support. It’s hard making friends when they know you’ll just move away in a few years.
Please understand: It’s not all bad.
We’ve gotten to live all over the world and experience some amazing travel – learning about history, culture, art. My kids are resilient for having to move to a new location every few years. The world is a smaller place to them than it was to me at their age.
I think military spouses are at greater risk for depression, substance abuse, and more. It’s a very stressful life. Without proper support systems in place, it’s even harder.
Who do you turn to for help when you need it?
Mental health services aren’t ideal for active duty members or dependants.
We’re required to have a minimum of 3 appointments with a Behavioral Health Optimization Program (BHOP) provider before a referral off-base to a civilian mental health professional who is on the TRICARE provider list.
The most the BHOP offered were breathing exercises, a smartphone app with a monthly membership fee, and Christian pseudo-psychology self-help books. It was a joke.
A referral can be hit or miss. What if I don’t click with the therapist? What happens with continuity since we move so frequently? It sucks to have to start over with therapy every few years.
Military OneSource offers a list of resources for mental health.
There is a stigma in the military with mental health. No one wants that on their record. No one wants to be tagged EFMP for mental health. No one wants to be dinged on evaluations or passed over on promotions due to asking for help. Nothing is really private.
Do you seem to carry the weight of the world upon your shoulders?
Turn off the news. Get off the Internet. Get outside and try to relax.
How are you affected?
Learn to recognize the symptoms of stress.
What can you control?
What can you change?
Try to let it go instead of worrying about it.
What can you set aside?
Simplify! Say NO.
How can you fill your love tank?
Take care of yourself.
Evidence-based research on PTSD and substance abuse in military veterans:
New survey findings from University of Phoenix show differences between veterans and active-duty service members’ perceptions about mental health, showing a shift in attitudes toward seeking professional help.
- Only 30% of veterans have sought or considered mental health counseling, compared to 72% of active-duty service members.
- 91% of active-duty service members say their leadership openly discusses the importance of addressing mental health concerns, compared to only 23% of veterans.
- 89% of active military members believe people who receive professional counseling generally get better, compared to 66% of veterans.
Are you stressed?
More Articles to Help:
- Homeschooling through Depression
- How Kids Can Talk to Parents About Depression
- Treating and Living with Anxiety
- Addiction and Depression: Treating Co-Occurring Disorders
- A Navigation Guide to Self-Discovery During Your Addiction Recovery Journey
- Recognizing and Treating Depression During Pregnancy
- Marriage and Mental Health: How to Cope When Your Spouse Has Been Diagnosed with Schizophrenia
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- A Healthy Home is a Happy Home: How to Optimize Your Home for Healthy, Stress-free Living
- 3 Common Misbeliefs about Suicide
- Resources for Parents with Children with Mental Health Problems
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- Drug Abuse and Addiction: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction
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- Coping with the Loss of a Loved One