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UNC study: Emotional support crucial to helping military families deal with deployments

Wives of active-duty soldiers are at risk for psychological problems such as depression, loneliness and burnout, a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found.

However, spouses are more likely to handle stress well if they are encouraged to build stronger relationships with their friends and communities, and can potentially lower their long-term medical costs if they receive military support services — including mental health care — early, the study concluded.


Dr. Dennis Orthner discusses how military spouses are affected by deployments, and what can be done to help ease distress

“When the military services focus some of their resources and attention on getting their families ready for deployments, this clearly pays off in the readiness of their personnel for duty and can result in fewer emotional and family problems when they return home,” said UNC School of Social Work professor, Dennis Orthner, Ph.D. Orthner co-authored the study with Roderick Rose, a research associate at the school’s Jordan Institute for Families.

The report is published in the October 2009 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Family Relations. The study was commissioned by the U.S. Army Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. Orthner has been providing research assistance to the Army since 1979. Download article (pdf)
Orthner said the study’s findings reinforce that on-going efforts to strengthen military families do work but more preventative programs are needed to help couples address problems before they become unmanageable.

“I think the tendency in any large system is to mobilize a mental health system in response to a crisis and then allocate to that side pretty aggressively,” he said. “What our study points out is that there really is a need to shift some portion – if not a large portion – of those dollars to early identification, so that you’re beginning to ID the risks before they become a crisis.”

Dennis Orthner, Ph.D.

The effects of combat tours on the whole family have grabbed more public attention in recent years because of the U.S.’s engagement in two on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and because of the frequency and length of deployments. Military families repeatedly deal with constant separation and reunification, forcing moms and dads, for example, to frequently adjust parental authority.

For their study, Orthner and Rose explored how well Army wives adjust psychologically when their husbands’ jobs take them away from their families. Their research was based on data the Army collected from 8,056 female spouses between September 2004 and January 2005.

About a third of the spouses were “quite distressed,” and those that were tended to be younger, have younger children and have longer periods of separation. Orthner said that was not surprising, considering the makeup of the Army.

“It has a high concentration of young couples who are just starting out their adult lives, and they’re just starting to have kids. So it’s difficult when a young soldier goes away for 12 to 18 months and leaves a wife at home with a 2-year-old or a 4-year-old.” 

Still, the study found that the risks for psychological troubles are almost cut in half when spouses receive supportive services from the military, including relationship skills training, which teaches improved communication and financial management.

“These efforts are likely to pay off in less use of mental health services and potentially lower costs for medical care,” the study notes.

More longitudinal research is needed, but spouses appear to fare even better if they have a well-established network of friends and colleagues to lean on during a crisis, Orthner said. Those who do the best, he said, are more mature couples: spouses who are older, married longer and with higher salaries. Additionally, couples already in very healthy relationships are more likely to adjust well to a separation, Orthner said.

“What we’ve found in the past is that … if you wait until after a spouse comes back to rebuild a relationship or to work on one that was already weak, then it’s too late,” he said. “You really have to think ahead about building strong relationships before they go.”
By Susan White
Related links:

Orthner’s Family Relations journal article: “Work separation demands and spouse psychological well-being” (pdf)
Orthner’s faculty bio page
Contact Magazine special feature: “Supporting war-weary service members, veterans and their families”