Focus on the Family

The military ramps up outreach to spouses feeling the strain of multiple deployments.

By the end of May, the Army had lost 62 active-duty soldiers to suicide since the beginning of the year. That's just one branch of the military-and the figure does not include members of the reserves or National Guard. The number of suicides among spouses of those deployed? Largely unknown.

The military is monitoring the suicide rate among active-duty members-a growing problem as deployments increase and the time between tours decreases- but it does not track the suicide rate among spouses of the enlisted. During the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan the Pentagon has focused more time, money and resources than ever before on the mental health and well-being of soldiers and veterans. More services are available to help military members, with programs devoted to suicide prevention, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and marriage counseling. In 2010, a task force led by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, issued a report on the increase in soldier suicides that included more than 250 recommendations, including recruiting more mental health counselors and expanding behavioral health services at installations. While many of these benefits are available to the families of service members, spouses and children increasingly suffer from debilitating depression and anxiety, either because they do not seek help or do not know where to obtain it.

"I don't know if leadership understands how serious the situation is, and part of that is our fault," says Kristina Kaufmann, an advocate for military families whose husband served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Ask an Army wife how she is doing and 98 percent of the time, you'll get 'fine.' "

Jessica Harp certainly wasn't fine. Harp, a young Army wife, posted a suicide note on her blog in April. "If you are reading this, then you should know that I am dead," she wrote. Police intervened before she could go through with her attempt, and she received treatment. The details of her story are familiar to many wives bearing the burden of a spouse's deployment. Harp encountered difficulty finding a job, her marriage fell apart and she was unable to obtain the support she needed to cope, according to an April 25 report in The New York Times.

Part of the challenge is the disconnect between policy coming from the Pentagon's leadership and the reality of the situation on the ground within military units. The Defense Department has tried to root out the entrenched stigma within military culture of seeking help for mental health issues. "We need to get people to believe that the department wants you to get help, because we do," said David McGinnis, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs, during a May event on military families at the National Press Club in Washington.

According to a February report from the Military Health System, the Army, Navy and Air Force each plan to add mental health providers to their staffs between now and 2016.

But if military personnel or their spouses don't think they're getting sufficient support within their units, or witness a backlash against a peer who seeks help, then all the available mental health services in the world won't do any good. "Families identify with the people in their unit at the lower levels," says Kaufmann, who emphasizes the importance of training up and down the chain of command.

Family Readiness Groups, which are command-sponsored organizations in each branch of the military, aim to provide emotional, social and other types of support to family members. They are supposed to be the eyes and ears on the ground. Alyssa Mansfield, an epidemiologist at the Veterans Health Administration, praises the groups' work, but points out that those who lead them often have their own struggles. "The spouses running them have been strongly encouraged to take those roles because they are the spouses of men in leadership roles," says Mansfield, who authored a 2010 study that confirmed prolonged deployments increase diagnoses of mental health problems among Army wives. "They are often dealing with their own stresses, and yet they are expected to be the rock for these women." Mansfield, who has worked for the military and calls herself very "pro-Department of Defense," is unveiling a similar study soon that looks at the effects of deployment on the mental and behavioral health of children. While there are clearly challenges for military families, Mansfield believes that most actually are doing pretty well.

Kaufmann also believes the military is trying its best to de-stigmatize depression and other mental health issues and provide more services and outreach to family members. But the department lacks a comprehensive strategy that integrates the mental health of families and veterans, she says. This is where the leadership at the department, and within the administration, could be most effective.

Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sheila Casey, wife of retired Gen. George W. Casey, former Army chief of staff, have spoken publicly about the stress military families and personnel face after a decade of war. In April, first lady Michelle Obama and the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, launched a national initiative focusing on the employment, education and wellness of military personnel and their families. "This will remain one of my defining missions as first lady," Obama said.

The administration, however, is still reviewing a long-standing policy of not sending presidential condolence letters to the families of certain service members: those who commit suicide.

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