Administration Report Outlines Efforts to Help Families Deal with Stress of War

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Administration Report Outlines Efforts to Help Families Deal with Stress of War

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war-stress.jpgWASHINGTON, DC—The White House recently introduced a government-wide effort to support military families outlined in its report, Strengthening Our Military Families. The report acknowledged that military families are not immune to the stresses of deployment and pointed out that the cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health diagnoses among spouses.

In announcing the initiative, President Barack Obama said it is the first time ever that supporting the well-being of military families will be a priority not just for DoD and VA, but all across the federal government. “This is not only a military or a moral obligation,” the president said. “This is a matter of national security. With millions of military spouses, parents, and children sacrificing as well, the readiness of our armed forces depends on the readiness of our military families.”

The report pointed out that there are approximately 700,000 military spouses and an additional 400,000 spouses of Reserve members. More than 700,000 children have experienced one or more parental deployment. Currently, about 220,000 children have a parent deployed.

The administration says that its goal is to help military families by increasing behavioral healthcare services through prevention-based alternatives and integration of community-based services, among other strategies.

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Mental Health Stigma and Families

Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also emphasized the challenges facing families of deployed troops in a speech to healthcare providers at the 2011 MHS conference. “I simply do not believe we fully understand the terrible impact of the cumulative effects of stress, anxiety, and worry that these families and their loved ones have endured, but we need to try and we need to do so quickly.”

Mullen said that while there are programs in place to support military families, there are still “fissures and cracks” in the family support system. One of those fissures is secondary posttraumatic stress, she said. Families often experience the same depression, anxiety and headaches, and panic attacks as servicemembers.

Some spouses turn to alcohol, prescription drugs, and even suicide. “I am convinced that much of the desperation these drastic measures represent is rooted in the stigma still attached to mental health issues.”

Mullen said that family members do not want to seek assistance for mental health issues because of embarrassment, and in many cases, a servicemember even warns the spouse about getting help.

When some spouses do seek help they may experience misdiagnoses, lengthy waits, and red tape, which discourage and damage the “healing process” for the families. Mullen gave two examples of spouses treated at a hospital on a military post who were diagnosed with PTSD and then were given multiple prescriptions, but no follow-up appointment or referral for psychological help.

Spouses also describe the “15 to 1 rule,” which is the belief that they are allowed to discuss only one symptom they are experiencing during the 15 minutes they have with the healthcare provider, even if they are suffering from multiple symptoms. “You do not need to put on a pair of boots and patrol outside the wire to suffer the effects of war,” she said. “If it is keeping you from living your life and loving your family, you owe it to yourself and, frankly, the military owes it to you to get you the help you need.”

The long duration of the conflicts is also having an impact on children. “In 2009 alone, 300,000 prescriptions for psychiatric drugs were provided for military dependents under the age of 18,” Mullen said. “Some are no doubt warranted, but I worry that we don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of these medications.”

Reintegration and reunion are additional challenges that military children and spouses deal with. She said the Army recently released information that spouse and child abuse cases are rising. “We have come to understand that while a combat tour may last a year, the effects of that tour on a servicemember and family may last much longer.”

She suggested one method to help families in crisis is through home-centered assistance. This entails having a trained counselor or medical professional come to a family’s home and provide assistance.

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