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Soldiers' wives: Fighting mental, emotional battles of their own

A new study shows higher levels of depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders among Army wives whose husbands have had lengthy deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. New programs aim to help, but there's a stigma in a professional culture that values toughness.

By Staff writer / January 23, 2010

Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard are greeted by family and friends as they enter the parking lot of the Corunna Armory in Corunna, Mich. in 2007 for a homecoming ceremony after a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq.

Ryan Garza/The Flint Journal/AP/File

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It’s always been true that when a soldier comes home, he brings the war back with him – emotionally, at least.

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In the Civil War, the extreme of the phenomenon was called “soldier’s heart.” Today, it’s known less poetically and more clinically as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But it’s also true that others are affected as well – particularly close family members. And this is becoming increasingly obvious among spouses of service members sent to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A new study by researchers at RTI International, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences shows that lengthy US Army deployments increase the occurrence of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other mental health diagnoses for soldiers' wives left at home.

More stress, more sleepless nights

"This study confirms what many people have long suspected," said Alyssa Mansfield, the study's lead author, now a research epidemiologist at RTI International. "It provides compelling evidence that Army families are feeling the impact of lengthy and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is more depression, more stress, and more sleepless nights."

The study showed noticeably higher levels of anxiety, depression, and sleep disorder among the wives of soldiers who had been absent for 12 months or more than was found in wives who hadn’t experienced the same amount of separation from their husbands at war.

"It's a continuing stress," Keli Lowman of Fayetteville, N.C., whose husband served twice in Afghanistan and once in Iraq, told National Public Radio. "We are a constant ready force. So you may exchange the distress of 'he's leaving' for the stress of 'he's gone,' to the excitement that 'he's coming home,' to the stress of 'he's going to leave again' in 12 months."

The Army has responded by reducing the number and length of deployments, increasing the time spent at home between deployments, providing more marriage and family therapists, and offering telephone counseling.

Still, it remains a difficult issue, especially in a professional culture that values toughness – among families as well as the warriors they love.

Stigma of perceived weakness

"We know there's a stigma," Deborah Mullen, wife of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, said at a suicide conference last week. "Spouses tell me all the time that they would like to get mental health assistance, but they really believe – as incorrect as this is … that if they seek help, that it will have a negative impact on their spouse's military career."

The study was published in the Jan. 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Among its findings: “The psychosocial burden on families of deployed military personnel is less well understood and perhaps not comparable to that of previous deployments, given current service conditions. 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. Studies examining the effects of deployment on spouses have shown increased rates of marital dissatisfaction, unemployment, divorce, and declining emotional health.”

Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain who is serving in Afghanistan and author of “While They're At War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront,” said the findings are not surprising. Recently, a fellow military wife confided that she was taking antidepressants to cope with her husband's deployment.

"She said, 'Oh, everyone is on Prozac here,'" Henderson told Business Week.

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