In a groundbreaking study that will surprise very few people , researchers have found that military wives whose spouses experience long-term deployments are at a higher risk for mental-health problems than their counterparts whose husbands live and work near home. The study, published in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine , found that 36.6 percent of U.S. Army wives whose husbands had deployed had at least one mental-health diagnosis, compared with 30.5 percent of women whose husbands had not deployed. Among these diagnoses are elevated rates of depression, sleep disorders, and anxiety; researchers posit that "besides fear for the safety of their loved ones, spouses of deployed personnel often face challenges of maintaining a household, coping as a single parent, and experiencing marital strain due to a deployment-induced separation of an uncertain duration."
This research is provocative in part because it’s the largest study of its kind, examining electronic medical data for more than 250,000 of the nearly 300,000 women whose active-duty husbands were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan from 2003-2006. As the lead researcher has commented, it’s an opportunity to quantify the stress of combat deployment on military families.
It’s particularly satisfying to me, as a military spouse experiencing a long deployment, that the accompanying NEJM editorial outlines why Americans should care. The mental health of military spouses is actually a public-health issue, since most military families will eventually move outside the sphere of military facilities, requiring civilian providers and services. Although happy spouses make happy troops-it’s widely acknowledged now that the attitude and satisfaction of military dependents can either boost or crush the morale of the servicemember and directly affect rates of retention-this is secondary to the concerns of the researchers.
And that’s exactly why this is landmark research. The study of the mental health of today’s military families, who experience longer and more frequent combat deployments, is in its infancy. Among the few studies that have been published, the well-deserved focus on the emotional travails of military children and the overarching concerns of servicemembers with PTSD have turned the mental health of military spouses into a footnote. In a recent RAND report on the experience of children from military families , for example, authors simply noted that "families in which caregivers face mental health issues may need more support for both caregiver and child."
NEJM’s in-depth look at today’s military wives acknowledges, for the first time, that these women’s mental health is worthy of examination not just because of how it impacts their children, their husbands, or America’s fighting force. And that’s cause for celebration.