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Military Spouses in Crisis: 3 Things We Need to Talk About

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Military spouses are known for being resilient. But do we have enough support in place for when they're not?

A few days ago, Christina Booth, a military spouse at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was arrested after cutting her three children’s throats in an effort to make them quiet for her husband since he “got ‘very annoyed'” when the kids were loud. She and her husband had been drinking and reports are that she had very little help from her husband in raising her children. Her family was described as one in crisis. All three children survived and are recovering from the attack. All of the details, if you want to read them, are here.

The purpose of this post isn’t to condemn this woman. Sadly, Christina’s story isn’t a new one. Take Sheena Griffin’s story– a woman who shot her children, set her house on fire, and then committed suicide after calling her deployed ex. Or Rouhad Ahamd Ezzeddine‘s– a male spouse who apparently killed both of his daughters and then himself shortly after his wife returned from Afghanistan.

And even more tragically, the story is one we will most likely see again.

Perhaps we can’t “fix” every situation where there’s a family in crisis, but we can discuss and work towards ending some of the root causes and systemic issues in the military community that help to contribute to extreme situations.

Mental Health Care

Often, when stories like this come to light, we try to distance ourselves by saying that the person was evil, beyond help, or had something inherently wrong with them. We look for a reason why. We tell ourselves that we would never do something so heinous. We say that she should have gotten help or that someone should have seen it coming. But the truth is that many military spouses deal with mental health issues. A 2008 survey by the American Psychiatric Association “found that 40 percent believed their mental health was hurt by their husband’s or wife’s service overseas.” About 25% of respondents had regular issues with sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression.” That is tragic. That is something we should be talking about.

Let’s talk about this too: there is embarrassingly little analysis of and data on military spouse suicides and attempted suicides. That, in itself, is an egregious oversight.

And then let’s talk about  the health care system itself. We know that TriCare is notoriously overtaxed. There are frustrating hurdles to overcome and miles of red tape to cut through. There are doctors who don’t remember who you are because they see thousands of patients. Depending on where you are, you might have to get health care at multiple sites or getting onto waiting lists. Or have to travel hours for specific treatments. I’ve seen it happen for friends who are not in crisis but still need health care issues dealt with. Then add a PCS to a site you’ve never been. You have to begin the process of navigating the system all over again. For people who need serious help, the system can be daunting, impossible to decode, or too slow for their needs.

This isn’t an abstract issue that could, maybe, possibly happen under the right conditions. It’s something that plays out every day. Take Judy’s story. Judy’s son, Geoffrey, has undergone treatment for suicide ideation, PTSD, depression, and addiction. As a college-aged military dependent, he was put on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist because there were no doctors that took TriCare in his area. Without an appointment, he could not get a prescription that he needs to mediate the symptoms of his diagnosis. He needs this prescription. Period. Eventually, he was offered periodic 15-minute video check-ins with a doctor and separate appointments with a counselor who was not a doctor.

That’s not okay.

Isolation

It goes without saying that being a military spouse– and the military lifestyle itself– can be exciting and adventurous. It can also be isolating and lonely. Moving every few years, making a new life in a new place, feeling little or no control over where you live, dealing with deployments (often as the only adult in the house)… they all add up. Many military spouses also find it difficult or nearly impossible to find jobs relating to their career aspirations, adding to a sense of loss of self and limiting the number of people that they are in contact with daily. When paired with depression, a mental illness, a sick child, a rural base, or any other confining obstacles, being able to find friendship and camaraderie can feel nearly impossible.

New Mothers

I think we can all agree: pregnancy and childbirth are huge, life-changing events. When coupled with the stress and rigors of military life, obstacles and problems can be exacerbated. There have been studies done showing that a spouse’s deployment is a risk factor for postpartum depression, too, by the way.

Consider that TriCare doesn’t yet cover breastfeeding supplies. Consider that the DoD’s Military Support page (which highlights efforts to support military families) contains no mentions of programs or initiatives dealing with pregnancy, new mothers, or babies… at least, nothing that I could find at the time of my visit and search. Consider that when I searched the internet (using at least fifteen different searches with different search terms) for support for military spouse new moms or postpartum depression, exactly 0 programs covered by the military or the government came to the top of the list.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist– it means that they are difficult to find for someone intentionally looking for them. The programs that do show up include lists from blogs, nonprofits, and organizations and are often on poorly designed, tough-to-navigate websites or aren’t linked. For example, I found mention of a program that offers visiting nurses for pregnant moms and newborns, but no link was provided… and neither was the program’s name. It was a virtual dead-end. Considering the sheer amount of new mothers (especially young mothers) and babies connected to the military, you’d think that this would be a primary (or at least a major) area for improvement, expansion, and growth. A healthy mom means an healthier baby and family– and that is never a bad thing. If we want healthy military families, we need to take the support and well-being of new mothers seriously.

[Tweet “If we want healthy milfams, we need to take the support & well-being of new mothers seriously.”]

I want to be wrong.

I want someone in the comments to point me to robust programs, support systems, and help for military families and spouses in crisis that I’ve overlooked. (Seriously!) But sadly I don’t think that will be the case. And until programs dealing with depression, stress, and mental health are easily accessible, available, and usable our military community is not as strong as it could–or should– be.


27 Responses

  1. I know at Fort Hood they have a new parent support group on post and it is easy to find since all you have to do is ask about it at the women’s center or ob when pregnant. I believe it can also be found through ACS.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Whitney! I will look into it. I want to compile a list of resources like this that we can put at the finger tips of moms who need a little help.

  2. Jo,
    Thank you for sharing these stories. I am not a military personnel but I definitely see how these support systems and programs can help.

  3. Jo, thank you so much for writing about this and your experience, as well as the worst case scenarios that hurt us all. I am in military social work and am a (civilian) mama of two kids. A friend of mine and I started a group through Army Community Services that is designed specifically for new moms with babies a year and younger – we invite pregnant women too. Lack of support and relational disconnection – AKA “I have no friends around here” – is a huge problem for these mamas and I can relate. But we are helping to bridge that gap with Safe Harbor group. New Parent Support is another program that supports our group and is connected with our work. Shoot me an email if you want to know more. I really want to get the word out about the Safe Harbor program so more of them can be developed.

    1. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing both programs! I would love to work with you. Shooting you an email now.

  4. Such an important topic to bring to the forefront of military life! I did use New Parent Support Program to get support after birth. But I do agree there needs to me more education and easy access to available programs. It should be easy to find help, not buried deep in pages of Google.

    1. In researching different options, I didn’t come across New Parent Support Program.Thanks for sharing that program, Lauren! I think there are programs that are “hidden” but if people can’t access them easily… Sigh.

  5. I loved reading the article. However, there are several recourses available to military spouses. They have people at the clinic that is willing to help, even setting up an appointment with your pcm is helping out. I suffer from PPD, severe anxiety and ptsd. I’m a wife of an airman. I started noticing I wasn’t myself. I had to call around but I found plenty of places that are willing to help that are within the base. The AFRC or the FRG which ever base/fort/camp you are at, there are resources to help us. You are going to find them googling it. You actually have to set up an appointment with your pcm and then you get started from there.

    1. Jessica– thank you for pointing those out and sharing your experience!! I wish these programs were easier for people to access quickly and that those options were available online, so that people who need them can find out about them easily.

  6. With me not being too far out from pregnancy, labor and new mom I for sure can imagine how hard it would be for military families! Support is key! I hope more programs become available.

    Thanks for linking up with us!

    1. Thanks, Cassie! I get frustrated with our medical care sometimes… and that’s without the added stress of being pregnant or having a young child. I can’t imagine dealing with it with those added stressors.

  7. Even living in a large metropolis I’ve had difficulty finding a psychiatrist that I both connect with and is covered. It took me waiting for 3 months following a panic attack (major anxiety was present all year) that caused me to fail a college class. I was desperate for medication to help in the short term while I sought out a counselor to assist me in developing healthy ways to manage and cope with my anxiety. 1) He flat out told me he didn’t understand why school was causing anxiety, making him 2) reluctant to prescribe anything because I “don’t really need it.” All of that following his criticism of me seeking medication (read: help), my chosen profession (engineering), and the naming of my children. Thanks, Tricare, for offering QUALITY mental health to your enrollees. Since then (~9mo) I’ve been on 3 counselor’s wait list without any call backs, so I’ve begun paying OUT OF POCKET to seek the help I need. I thank God we can afford this on our dual full-time-student “salaries” (fin aid & grant money) but I know many families who can’t. Thank you for writing on this very important topic that needs to be addressed.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Deb. I hope the waitlists empty quickly and you’re able to find someone who is able to work with you without belittling you. That is awful.

  8. I know I called our base hospital crying because my meds weren’t working and I told them I was depressed and needed to talk to someone. I was put on hold numerous times and talked to at least three individuals and not one of them ever asked if I was feeling suicidal. Not once! Someone, somewhere had to have known the protocol and the risks yet no one asked. I never got an appointment.

    1. I am so, so sorry that that happened to you, EuJene. I’ve been hearing far too many stories like yours recently.

  9. Jo, Thank you so much for this post! Supporting one another and sharing resources can not only help in the moment, but also save lives. Military families are so worn down. I witnessed this in filming for my documentary about Military Families While Time Stands Still. You may start out fine, but add a few deployments into the mix and it is sometimes hard to keep moving forward. Thank you for your insight.

  10. I’m glad I found your website, it’s good to hear from other military spouses. My husband was medically retired and we don’t live near a base (the closest is an hour and a half). These problems with care are even worse when you’re dealing with civilian doctors. Nobody wants to take Tricare, especially mental health professionals. My husband gave up trying to see a civilian doc for mental health (he has PTSD) and has to make an the hour+ trip to the nearest VA hospital to get help. Which means he loses half a day of work every time. It’s so frustrating!

  11. I am a new military spouse (we’ve been married a few months). Since marrying my husband, he has been ridiculed at work for marrying me. I have been called numerous names by the people he works with. I work full-time and I go to school full-time as well. I provided our home and I have my own car and savings account. The guys he works with do not know this because they’ve never asked, they automatically assumed the worst of me from the beginning. They tell him I’m only with him for his benefits, when the only benefit I have received is my husband. Since marrying him, my depression and anxiety has only worsened. I don’t feel accepted into the military community, and i feel beneath the other wives. I avoid FRG meetings like the plague in fear of rejection. When I’ve reached out for help at the hospital or for friends on Facebook pages for spouses, no one has acknowledged I even exist. And most of the spouses I have come into contact with are all rude, catty, and full of drama. I feel like I’m irrelevant, almost invisible. I do agree that the government needs to fund more programs to help the spouses. But I also believe that not just one person makes up this military community, we all do as a whole. We all have to face deployments, training, etc. The least us spouses could do, is reach out to one another and be there for each other. One friendly smile or hello could potentially save someones life. Maybe if we all tried to be a friend to one another instead of trying to tear each other apart, those numbers would improve.

  12. Oh… man. I asked for mental health because I am severely depressed 3x and was rejected by Tricare and told to go to MilOne Source. No thank you. I need to see a real Psychiatrist. There. That’s how the system fails us. I cannot get treatment so I am treating myself and paying out of pocket because it is scary. I can tell you 1000 other stories just like this. I have been a USAF dependent my entire life.

  13. FOCUS is a great program but only available in certain areas. Give an Hour is also a fantastic free, confidential mental health care source for anyone connected to the military community. http://www.giveanhour.org

  14. Thank God for McConnell AFB in Kansas. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive today. Originally I was just trying to ignore the signs and my feelings, and just went in to women’s health to get back on birth control… the original gyno I was supposed to be seeing got too busy, and her replacement was honestly a godsend. She genuinely cared and asked me questions outside of her duty, and ended up getting me on an antidepressant for Generalized Anxiety and Major Depression until I could get an appointment in mental health or with my PCM. She got me xanax for any panic attacks I might have in that time frame, and referred me to a counselor later that day right down the hall, and a mental health nurse that is SO awesome and thoughtful (she sends me cards every once in awhile in the mail just because).

    It’s so hard to get help, or find the strength to ask. There are a lot of other doctors and places that brushed me off or didn’t help at all, but I promise that there will be one for everyone that will change your life and your thinking! I struggled for years and years before I got the support I needed, and my husband now has a lot to do with that. Surround yourself with people you can be honest and candid with, that’s the number one most important thing you can do for your mental health! #2 is speaking up and being honest!

    It gets better!

  15. I am a military spouse (17 years and counting) I have three children ages 10, 5, 8months. My husband is currently deployed. New Parent Support IS available to me, but I am not a “new parent” as I have been at it for 10 years. With no family or close friends around (for reasons you pointed out) I trust no one to “watch” my children. I can only access the resources that new parent support offers for my baby. What shall I do with the others?? There are NO ACCESSIBLE childcare programs to cover all ages and NO REAL support for families. I was asked on a questionnaire at my postpartum appointments AND the baby’s well visits about postpartum depression. I circled the answers that put me off the charts and NOT ONE HEALTHCARE provider blinked or asked me ONE question. They filed the paper in my folder and that was that. THANK GOD I have a relationship with one of only THREE practicing psychiatrists “in town” (keep in mind this is a Marine Corps town where PTSD runs rampant) whom I had the wherewithall to contact and he took care of me. If not for that, and past experience with postpartum, I’m not sure where we would be today. My husband all the while was prepping for a deployment that was sprung on us only weeks in advance. I literally was left practically helpless with 3 children and NO RESOURCES. We have only a few weeks to go, and I’m not sure how we have survived it. Even with his unit “support” it has been very little. They send out an email here and there, hold events at the last minute, and most of them are potlucks–yes, I feel like cooking for a slew of people while I’m at home with leaky breasts and 3 screaming kids, and no help. (The Family Readiness Officer is a man). It’s a JOKE. It infuriates me that the military will spit out and show you a list of resources available to you, but they aren’t REALLY available to you. I don’t expect someone to knock on my door and ask if they can help, but I DO expect basic support. Oh, and you forgot the financial strain. If you aren’t in a combat zone, you practically LOSE money on a deployment. (In our case anyway) My husband who has served 17 years is making $203 extra per month. I spend $60 every two weeks to have my grass cut (because I can’t do EVERYTHING) and he spends $80/month for internet so that we can communicate regularly. There goes the $203!!! We did chose this life, and there have been some great benefits. But any employer who asked what is asked of military members would surely treat them better. They (and their families) deserve better. And no one knows that MORE than those who have served.

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