As we observe National Veterans and Military Families Month in November, we often want to express our gratitude to the military community. One of the most impactful and straightforward ways to say thank you is to engage in meaningful conversations. Military personnel, their spouses and children encounter distinctive challenges that often take a toll on their mental and emotional wellbeing. When it comes to mental health, sometimes the hardest part is creating relationships where voicing fear, doubt and sadness is welcomed and encouraged.
In recent years, through hard work and advocacy, significant progress has been made in addressing military family mental health. The stigma of being mentally unwell, the effect on a servicemembers’ career, and the impact on a family’s ability to thrive in the military community caused many to mute their voices. “Embrace the suck” or “You signed up for this” are the types of phrases often heard by military spouses who break barriers of silence to express emotional and mental wellness needs, or to seek out resources.
Although they may not face direct combat, military spouses and children go through all of the same life changes and stressors as their servicemember. They simply experience a different side of it. Recognizing these unique challenges and providing support is important, not only for the individual, but for maintaining a strong and resilient military community as a whole.
Active duty stressors for spouses and children
Active duty military families expect frequent relocations and embrace last-minute changes to schedules, duty locations and plans. However, each of these upheavals can create huge amounts of stress. Keeping so many shifting pieces organized, such as finding a new home, moving schedules, changing schools, power of attorney paperwork, spouse employment and loss of friends and community can be overwhelming. Relocation happens approximately every 3 years for the average military family. Sometimes it feels like there is barely time to settle in, let alone create deep relationships, before it’s time to pack up and do it all again.
Military children face many of the same stressors. Confusion, nervousness, loneliness and sadness at having to start over or make new friends brings the need for mental health resources to the forefront. Children are often ill-equipped to handle these strong feelings and may isolate while trying to acclimate to a new norm. While the military spouse, who usually maintains the family unit, often recognizes that their child may not be thriving, there is a lack of resources to support them. All of this while planning a move to a new state or new country with acute timelines makes it nearly impossible to address mental health care.
Year-long deployments are another major active duty stressor. Spouses and children often grapple with feelings of separation, anxiety, and the stress of managing day-to-day responsibilities alone.
Transition stressors for spouses and children
The transition from active duty military life to civilian life can be one of the most stressful periods for any servicemember, military spouse or family member. Military families have big expectations and anticipation of a wonderful new chapter full of possibilities when leaving active duty service, however, the reality is that they underestimate the impact and ultimately it can leave them feeling lost, confused and without purpose.
During retirement or transition, every single thing about military life changes. Many servicemembers confront their own mental health needs in transition which can cause relationship tension with their spouses and children. Additionally, the services and resources that support the servicemember as they address their transition including new employment, physical disabilities, finding a “forever home,” and leaving a community that has offered purpose, mission and meaning, often don’t consider that the spouses and children are facing the same challenges.
Military spouses and children are also susceptible to depression and anxiety during the transition. The transition can bring about feelings of loss of identity, grief over losing your community, fear of the unknown and dealing with a new family dynamic where the servicemember is typically more present and involved, often a massive shift in a family’s “norm.”
Let’s start talking about it
There are many resources available for active duty servicemembers as well as veterans, and a few non profit organizations dedicated to the spouses and families.
Veterans struggling with their mental health can go to the VA for healthcare assistance at www.mentalhealth.va.gov
Military family members can search a benefits finder specifically for Health Care & Emotional Wellbeing at Military One Source, that includes almost 60 resources
Cohen Veterans Network provides a nationwide network of mental health clinics for families
The organization Give an Hour has a specialized approach for emotional wellbeing for those associated with the military community including parents, siblings and family members
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is an organization specifically designed to cater to the mental health needs of military and veteran caregivers
SpouseLink by AAFMAA is a network of active duty and retired military spouses across the country that host and participate in military and related events, connecting with members of their local communities throughout the year, in-person and online
Whether you are a part of the active duty community, the veteran community or the civilian community, help out military and veteran families this month by offering a listening ear. Start talking about it. Ask questions. Empathize, and offer support if you are able. These simple actions can make all the difference to a military family finding their resilience one day at a time.