Armed Forces spouses can face challenges to their mental wellbeing that few in the wider civilian community experience, say charities, but few studies into the impact of military life have been carried out in the UK.
Government figures show that while the rate of mental disorder among the Armed Forces is about 2.7% of UK personnel, research into the wellbeing of spouses faces a gap in research.
However, charities and support groups recognise that military life, including regular relocations, can impact on the social connections, and the support received through those connections, that help families cope during times of stress and other challenges to mental wellbeing.
The Army Families Federation (AFF) believes that in the UK there are four main areas that could impact on the wellbeing of spouses and military families, and raise the risk of illnesses such as depression. This includes:
Support organisations and charities are now placing increasing focus on the wellbeing of spouses but recognise there is more to be done.
Karen Ross, Health & Additional Needs Specialist at AFF, said:
"(There is still) more support for soldiers than spouses."
Ms Ross added that a lot of the mental health issues for military spouses, including depression, come from mobility, saying that "getting the support and transferring it can cause quite long waiting lists for treatments."
Studies might be lacking in the UK but research overseas, such as that carried out by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, examined the mental wellbeing of military spouses. That study found several high risk factors of depression in military spouses, including relocation, separation, unpredictable training cycles and job rotations.
The four areas of focus are providing some framework to how support can be offered to military spouses.
Mobility - Families can move every two-three years and often do not have a choice in where they move to. Moving like this impacts on transferring NHS waiting lists, continuity of healthcare, and even the variations of treatment provided in each location.
Separation - Some soldiers can be away for months at a time on deployments or training, which means families are often split up. Sometimes families can be separated from their normal network of family and friends, especially if they are posted overseas.
Isolation - Separation also leads on to isolation, especially if people are in a new area. Isolation can occur geographically, or if families live in their own home and have less support from the services that you'd receive on base.
What Is Depression?
Mental Health Charity MIND describes depression as:
“A low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects your everyday life.”
There are several different types of depression but some of the most common include:
- Seasonal Affective Disorder – Depression that happens at a particular time of year or season.
- Dysthymia – Continuous mild depression, also known as chronic depression.
- Prenatal depression – Depression during in pregnancy.
- Postnatal depression – Depression after having a baby, usually diagnosed in women but it can also affect men.
Signs Of Depression:
Look out for some of these warning signs that someone you know, or a loved one, might be showing. All of us at times need support to help us cope with mental health issues.
- Finding no pleasure in life or things you usually enjoy
- No self-confidence
- Isolated and unable to relate to other people
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- No appetite or eating too much and gaining weight
What Causes Depression?
There are many medical factors that can lead to depression but research shows some of the most noteable causes of depression can be major life changes - for instance moving house, relationship issues and bereavement. For some military spouses, moving house, and country, can happen quite regularly and this can have an impact on mental health.
Ways To Cope
There are different levels of treatment depending on the severity of depression, and not every treatment works for everyone but some can help to mitigate the impact on overall wellbeing.
Advice from all of the families federations is, firstly, to reach out and talk to someone - whether that's a doctor, a friend, a trusted colleague, a loved one or a neighbour.
The first port of call when someone requests mental health support is to direct them to their local GP or welfare team on base if they are overseas.
Treatments from doctors can be:
- A self-help programme.
- A computer based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) programme.
- Talking therapy, whether that's one-one-one or group based.
- Medication such as antidepressants.
Self-help treatments include:
- Mindfulness techniques
- Exercise, like going for a walk or working out in a gym
- Peer support. A simple cup of tea and a chat can go a long way.
Official Health Advice
General health advice from the NHS on coping with depression include taking some active steps that can improve mood and wellbeing.
This includes a range of small steps such as taking up exercise, eating healthily and cutting back on alcohol.
The NHS also advises patients not to withdraw from life, however hard that might seem in the throws of depression – because socialising is known to improve mood. Keeping in touch with friends and family is important when you need someone to turn to.
Face your fears: The NHS also says we should not avoid the things we find difficult. When people feel low or anxious, they sometimes avoid talking to other people. Some people can lose their confidence in going out, driving or travelling.
If this starts to happen, facing up to these situations will help them become easier.
Support From Charities
As some people can’t easily travel there is another option offered to military spouses.
Big White Wall is an online mental health service that anyone can access. It offers a support network and live therapy option depending on the needs of the user.
The support network is anonymous and guides people to making their own changes to improve their mental wellbeing, as well as having the peer support that armed forces communities are known for.
Big White Wall was set up in 2007 and is part of Contact, a group of charities working with the NHS and MOD to help the armed forces community access wellbeing and mental health support.
The RAF Benevolent Fund has also created a 'Listening and Counselling Service' for the families of serving soldiers, with a separate service for those serving in the RAF.
The Big While Wall team can be contacted via their website or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on (0)203 405 6196.
* Cover image credit: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2019