Coping Military Life Spouse 101

Suffering In Silence

Liz Snell appeared to have so much to be happy about. The Marine Corps wife had just started a new job after months of unemployment, she was celebrating her husband’s homecoming from Afghanistan, and she recently forged friendships at her new duty station at Camp Pendleton. On the outside, everything seemed content. But on the inside Liz was facing chaos. Underneath the smile were thoughts of taking her own life. She became so fixated on the act of putting a gun to her own head that it scared her into finally reaching out for professional help; strapped into an ambulance on the way to a mental health facility, she saw her husband break down for one of the rare moments in their marriage. What was happening to her could be happening within any one of us; after eleven years of a high operational tempo, new found roles as a caregiver have led the military family to begin seeing the impact of undocumented mental health challenges.  

If you find yourself feeling like Liz or just not yourself lately, you are not alone. A recent Rand Corporation report, Military Caregivers: Cornerstones of Support for Our Nation’s Wounded, Ill, and Injured Veterans, found that the majority of military caregivers are “young females with dependent children.” An entire new, young generation of military spouses are experiencing the aftermath of a continuous cycle of sending their service member off to combat while raising families, holding jobs, experiencing financial hardship, or a combination of all mentioned. An Air Force spouse, who wished to remain anonymous, shared with us how she began to experience her own overwhelming sense of anxiety and depression after watching her husband battle paranoia and suicidal thoughts. She felt the standard, cookie-cutter mental health evaluations were more a detriment to his health rather than a help. Her background as a school psychologist began to create blurred lines of when being a mental health professional stopped and being his wife started. When asked how she knew she needed something more than a friend to talk to, she stated “have a strong sense of self — when who you are is changing is a good indication that you need help.  Recognize the importance of being the wife and not the therapist.”


“Seeking Help is a Sign We Are Human, Not That We Are Weak”

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, of Give An Hour, connects mental health providers to military families for free.  The organization was started because Dr. Van Dahlen saw her own dad, a Wrld War II veteran, have episodes of magnified anger after he was injured at war.  Additionally, she saw Vietnam veterans still fighting the war AFTER Vietnam had ended, and she did not want our Post 9/11 generation to face the same circumstances.  Dr. Van Dahlen quantified a good litmus test for knowing when it is time to seek help is, “if you saw any of those things in someone you love would you be concerned? If the answer is yes, it is time.”   Her organization’s mission is to connect that help to those needing confidential, quality care. She has seen a trend of challenges affecting families:

  • Reintegration: knowing how to transition to being a whole family unit again,
  • Burnout of caregivers, and
  • When a service member doesn’t seek the help they need which leads to stress on the family.

So how does a military spouse who holds so many roles ensure they are taking care of themselves first? Dr. Van Dahlen says that it is vital to be brutally honest with yourself; ask yourself questions like ‘Is your diet poor?’ ‘Are you sleeping?’ and ‘Has your mood towards life changed?’ Further, she adds that although mental health is internal, our physical well-being is affected by our mental fitness.  As we drawdown our forces in Afghanistan, the full extent of what our community is facing will be seen. 

Time to Focus on the Elephant in the Room

Navy spouse Alisha Youch has worked in the mental health field since 1991 and developed a support organization called “Military Families Count.” Her goal is to see improvements in the awareness of mental health and help military families get the quality care they deserve. To date, suicide amongst military family members has gone undocumented. Why has the critical issue gone unaddressed? “I think it’s been a matter of a reactive versus a proactive mindset,” Youch said. “In a crisis, such as a wartime setting, there are so many urgent issues to be addressed that some things simply must go unaddressed.”  However, she does point out that employing your Primary Care Manager (PCM) through your Tricare medical benefits is usually the best and most commonly-utilized resource for basic mental healthcare.  Similarly, twelve free counseling sessions are provided for free by Military One Source, which enables military families to get basic mental health care needs through individual, couple, or family meetings.


Congressional Action Taken

Recently, on June 6, 2013 the House Armed Services Committee passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14 NDAA) requesting that the Secretary of Defense explore the ability of the branches to begin tracking suicide amongst military family members. This action was long asked for by one of the leading military service organizations, the National Military Family Association. Here is the response from Executive Director, Joyce Wessel Raezer: “Our Association senses a growing level of concern in many military communities about the well-being of military spouses and children after more than a decade of war. While we’ve heard worries about growing numbers of military family member suicides, we don’t know the extent of the problem or which family members are most vulnerable. That’s why we asked Congress to direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to gather data and report on military family suicides. Once it has more information, the DoD can better focus resources to the families needing a greater level of support. We’re grateful members of Congress recognized the importance of this issue and added this language in the bill.”

As military spouses you are the foundation of your family.  Often, you are the ones comforting the children when they are missing a parent and you are planning the moves to new locations every two to three years. It may be hard to find the time to address your needs, but like the airlines’ mantra states: you must first take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Seek the help you deserve because you shouldn’t be suffering in silence another day. You are not alone.

Relevant Resources:


Leave a Comment