Today I want to return to the topic of military suicide and discuss a different and sadly overlooked side to this tragedy.  Yes, active duty service members and veterans are taking their lives at alarming rates, but suicide within service member and veteran families – among spouses in particular – is happening as well.

Two voices have recently spoken up about this underreported issue.  Deborah Mullen, wife of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, delivered an address to the Military Health System Annual Conference in early 2011 on the topic.  Kristy Kaufmann, wife of an Army soldier and executive director of the Code of Support Foundation (a nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between civilians and military America), published an opinion in the New York Times last November.

Both Deborah and Kristy point out that we have no accurate accounting of rates of spousal suicides within the military, due to privacy rules, and that this in itself is part of the problem.  Recent studies of military suicide have excluded the mental health of military family members, “effectively ignoring half of the problem”, Ms. Kaufmann stresses.

Only anecdotal evidence exists on the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts.  “Three Army wives I knew personally all took their own lives,” Kristy writes.  “Suicide attempts and completions among family members occur far more often than many realize or care to acknowledge.”  She adds that “suicide among service members, veterans and families is an indicator of the amount and duration of stress we continue to bear.”

“War comes home,” Kristy eloquently tells us.  “No soldier comes back the same, which means no family is ever the same.”

Deborah Mullen’s revelatory conference speech deserves to be read in its entirety.  She points out that there are many specific programs in place to help spouses with challenges such as the day-to-day demands of being a single parent or being a new caregiver to a wounded veteran.   But, “we are still discovering, still revealing, fissures and cracks in the family support system,” she observes.

The first “fissure” she mentions is “secondary post-traumatic stress”, and I see this as an extremely important and relatively misunderstood phenomenon.  Secondary post-traumatic stress, or secondary trauma, is the stress and trauma we are not directly exposed to but experience through someone else’s eyes and memories.  It is also the pain we feel as we watch someone we care about suffer and change from those first-hand experiences.  Kristy put it well: War comes home.

Suicide is the most extreme and tragic symptom of secondary trauma, but there are plenty of other symptoms as well. Ms. Mullen clearly identifies many of them.  “Families experience depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and headaches,” she observes, as well as cold sweats, lost concentration, panic attacks, and dread of contact with the outside world.  Many spouses are “unable even to get out of bed, to get dressed, prepare meals, or leave the house.  Some won’t even get their children off to school, leaving the care of little ones in the hands of older siblings.”

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Ms. Mullen continues, “to learn that some spouses turn to the same remedies that troops with PTS turn to – alcohol, prescription drugs, and some even contemplate suicide.”

The military branches have recognized for some time the stigma attached to mental health issues within the ranks.  Programs have been put in place to address the issue so that more service members can get the care they need and deserve.  But Deborah Mullen points out something I think most people are unaware of: the stigma against military wives seeking help for their own mental health challenges.

First of all, she believes, they’re “embarrassed” to seek help.  They also “worry that in doing so, they could negatively impact a husband’s or wife’s military career.”  As a final straw, “the service member even warns the spouse against getting help.”  “The services have worked hard to reduce mental health stigma in the ranks,” Deborah states, “but we need to continue to work to eliminate it from our homes as well.”

What happens for the desperate spouses who do gather the courage to seek treatment within the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs mental health services?  Deborah Mullen’s insider assessment paints a bleak, disturbing picture.  I will begin with that distressing portrait when I return next week.