from the relationship center

Military families and mental health

Posted 11/4/20

With Veterans Day just around the corner, and November being Military Family Month, I wanted to write about the mental health concerns that military families may face and what they can do about …

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from the relationship center

Military families and mental health


With Veterans Day just around the corner, and November being Military Family Month, I wanted to write about the mental health concerns that military families may face and what they can do about it.

Let’s start with a definition of mental health. William Glasser, MD, defined mentally healthy individuals as people who enjoy spending time with the people they know; who are ready to help an unhappy family member, friend, or colleague to feel better; who accept others for who they are without wanting to change them; and who leads a mostly tension-free life. Mentally healthy people are able to work out differences with others without arguing. When they are unhappy, they’re able to determine why and attempt to do something about it.

When you have a genuine brain disease such as dementia, a traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, or Korsakoff syndrome, there is something structurally wrong with your brain you can see with brain imaging. The diagnoses used to define mental distress are simply descriptions of behaviors humans have developed to deal with something painful in their lives. Think of mental health on a continuum, much like physical health. People can be prime specimens of health, they can be imminently dying, or they can be anywhere in between. In mental health, people can fit the mentally healthy description above, they can have brain disease (something structurally wrong with their brain), or they can be anywhere in between, which Glasser called unhappy.

No one in a military family is immune from psychological stress. Their level of resilience and how they choose to manage that stress determines where they fall on the continuum.

Let’s begin with the military member. Many know the incredibly disturbing facts about how many veterans commit suicide—there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016 ( This is an alarming statistic. In conversation with Dr. Richard Doss, a clinical psychology with the VA Center and former suicide specialist for the U.S. Army, he indicated that suicide is typically the result of relationship, rather than combat, challenges.

Military members are called upon to place country before anything else, which can be stressful in a relationship. Most people in monogamous long-term relationships have a desire to be the priority in their partner’s life. This is not the case when your partner is married to the military. Childrearing responsibilities fall disproportionately to the non-military partner, as do other household and family responsibilities. Prioritizing the country has stressful effects on the military member, too. Most military members are torn between their duties in the military and their responsibilities to their families. Trying to manage both often results in feelings of inadequacy.

Military children can also suffer, particularly during a deployment and especially those in combat areas. Military kids have added pressure to help out more around the house and often grow up faster than their non-military counterparts; if their parent is deployed to a combat zone, they frequently have worries about their parents’ safety, as well.

Many mental health concerns are understandable given the enormous challenges military families face regularly. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Allow service members reasonable time to reintegrate into the family after a separation. Often, adjustment challenges show up six months to two years after being reunited with the family. This is normal. Give them space and encourage them to spend time with other fellow veterans who understand what they are going through.
  2. Sometimes thrill-seeking behavior is part of adjusting. Some veterans take up day trading on the stock market, gambling, drinking and driving fast cars and motorcycles. These behaviors develop as a way of trying to recapture some of that adrenaline rush experienced in combat situations. This can be very hard for family members to understand. Urge your military member to engage in safe thrill seeking behavior: extreme sports, daytrading with discretionary funds with a limit, driving race cars on a supervised race track rather than on the streets, video games or gambling with a set amount that is never compromised.
  3. It is not uncommon for military spouses to engage in their own set of risky behaviors. Typically, the motivation behind a spouse’s behavior is craving attention, particularly from the absent military member. Some military spouse’s problematic behaviors I have seen are drinking excessively, overeating, overspending and having an affair.
  4. Military children may become overly compliant, defiant, drug-using, and/or aggressive.

The important thing to always remember is that the behavior isn’t the actual problem. The problem is what the behavior is designed to achieve. Each behavior, from the outside looking in, seems quite dysfunctional. However, when you look just underneath the behavior at what that behavior is designed to achieve, you will have a clue as to how to redirect that behavior to a more responsible, less-risky one designed to accomplish the same goal.

Open communication within the family is critical to your success. It is also not necessary for this communication all to be verbal. There are effective ways to communicate without talking about things. A loving touch, a suggestive glance, providing support and space in the proper amounts all communicate extremely well. Military families have amazing resilience. They know how to do things non-military families never encounter.

Healthy military families know how to draw strength from one another. They recognize when to reach out for help and often find that help in other military families. When the challenges overrun their ability to successfully manage, they know when to reach out to professionals for support—command, chaplains and military counselors are all effective resources for assistance with mental health concerns.

When the challenges are more than the military member or family feel equipped to manage, seeking help is a sign of strength. It takes bravery to admit one needs help. Facing one’s fears and challenges is often the most courageous thing to do.

Know that what military members and their families experience is normal given what they have experienced. A combat veteran isn’t experiencing PTSD, but rather simply post-traumatic stress. There is no reason for the word disorder to be a part of that label. In the military, some call it post traumatic injury, which is more accurate of the military experience. Most who have been through what they have will experience PTS, but that doesn’t make it a disorder. They create behaviors to help them get what they need. They are not broken; in fact, the contrary is true. They are resilient.

Find other ways, by yourself—with family or with professional help—to develop alternative behaviors to get what you need that have fewer consequences for yourself and those you love. They do not have to suffer and they are not alone. Go to your local Veteran’s Center or ask Military One Source for a referral.

Thank you to all military families for their extreme sacrifice. They sacrificed their peace of mind so everyone else could have theirs. It’s time for them to get the support and understanding they need. Happy Veterans Day—not only in November, but always.

And the only thing harder than being a military member is loving one. A huge thank you to all our military families for their huge sacrifice of sharing their family for a greater good. You have my ultimate respect.

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