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More than a decade of war in the Middle East has strained service members and their families. There have been multiple studies regarding the psychological toll that deployment and combat takes on military members; however, less is known about the psychological impact this has on the spouses of those that are deployed. As such, the mental health of military spouses has become a major cause for concern.
The militia “home front” is comprised of a huge population of people, as more than half of all 3.6 million active military personnel are married. During deployment, spouses frequently undergo a period of emotional turmoil and destabilization. During this time period, the spouse must temporarily assume the role of a single parent and handle the daily stresses of the household on their own while the service member is gone. This can add multiple stressors onto the spouse such as loneliness, financial concerns, changes in community support, and increased parenting demands. Additionally, all these stressors are intensified by fear for the safety of the deployed service member.
Deployment stress can then cause and exacerbate certain mental health problems in military partners, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. In fact, a new study performed by the King’s College London found that rates of depression and binge drinking are higher among female spouses of military personnel than those of comparable women outside the military community.
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For the study, researchers from the King’s Centre for Military Health Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, & Neuroscience (IoPPN) collected data from 405 women in military families with at least one child, representing around a third of the military population. Each participant was asked to report feelings of depression and frequency of drinking behaviors through self-reporting screening tools.
Researchers found that 7% of military partners met the criteria for clinical depression, compared to only 3% of women from the general population. Additionally, 9.7% of military spouses reported episodes of weekly or daily binge drinking, compared to that of 8.9% from the general population. After controlling for other outside factors linked to drinking behaviors, King’s College London researchers found that military partners were actually twice as likely to binge drink as women in the general population.
Overall, military partners reported consuming alcohol less frequently than women in the general population; however, they reported binge drinking more often. Binge drinking was significantly higher for the spouses when the families were separated for more than 2 months due to deployment.
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Military families experience various unique challenges, such as frequently moving location and long periods of separation caused by deployment. The King’s College London researchers say that the high rates of binge drinking may reflect poor coping strategies used by military partners during their spouse’s absence from the home. Binge drinking represents an important public health issue for the military community. Researchers are urging for the development of campaigns to reduce alcohol use in military families, suggesting for programs that successfully tackle dangerous drinking behaviors among service personnel to also include their spouses.
Isolation, separation, and mobility can all impact a Service families’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Research in these areas helps organizations working with Service families to better understand how they can be supported. We welcome the conclusion of this research by King’s College London that available support could be better signposted for military partners.
Researchers are also hoping the results of the study will influence healthcare professionals to acknowledge the impact that military life can have on the mental health of family members, and make treatment more readily available to these individuals. According to senior researcher Professor Nicola Fear of the IoPPN, there are plenty of support options available for military families out there, but these are not always easily accessible.
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