In my last post I sought to bring attention to an overlooked aspect of the current tragedy of military suicide – suicide within military families.  While hard statistics are unavailable at this time, anecdotal evidence indicates elevated levels of suicides and suicide attempts by military spouses, due to high levels of stress and secondary trauma.

I quoted two military wives – Ms. Deborah Mullen, wife of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, and Kristy Kaufmann, wife of an Army soldier and executive director of the Code of Support Foundation – as they eloquently spoke out about this troubling issue.  Deborah pointed out that stigma still exists against military spouses admitting their mental health challenges and post-traumatic stress.  Depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, panic attacks, and self-medication with alcohol and drugs have become a part of military spouses’ lives, as well as the lives of their active duty and veteran partners.

I ended my last post with the question: 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?  I draw my information here directly from Ms. Mullen’s address to the 2011 Military Health System Annual Conference.

The experience of spouses who seek help is “disappointing”, Deborah states.  “Misdiagnosis.  Lengthy waiting periods.  Red tape.”  Obstacles that “discourage and indeed damage the healing process”.

At the same military post hospital, she reveals, two spouses who sought treatment for help with classic PTS symptoms – one with suicidal thoughts – were prescribed five and seven medications each, with no followup appointments.  And, “Neither was ever referred for psychological help.”

I’m going to make a very strong statement here.  I believe a system that would allow a general practitioner to prescribe multiple, heavy-duty medications for psychological symptoms and then not see the patient again, is broken.  This is especially true for patients with suicidal thoughts.  Several prescription anti-depressants have been recently shown to create or intensify suicidal thought ideation.  I believe the actions of the doctors at this post hospital were unethical and unconscionable.

But there is even more going wrong for suffering military spouses within the mental health approach of the DoD and VA.  According to Ms. Mullen, spouses refer to it as the “15 and one rule”.

“It goes like this,” she explains.  “No matter WHAT may be bothering you from a health perspective, you are allowed to discuss only one symptom and only then for 15 minutes.  That’s it, no exceptions.  If we accept, as we have, that spouses suffer a PTS all their own . . . and if we know, as we do, that PTS manifests itself in many different ways in many different people, why would we not accept the need to treat the whole person?  Why would we fail to look at the totality of issues confronting a young spouse?  And why would we ask that young spouse not to confront them all herself?”

As a professional in the mental health field, with over 40 years of experience, I’m appalled and angry at what I see as insensitive and unprofessional practice within the military health system.  Patients must have the time and opportunity to reveal an accurate picture of the issues they face and the symptoms they experience.  With suicide as a potential outcome for desperate patients, I would characterize the treatment protocols for military spouses as very irresponsible and dangerous.

Kristy Kaufmann has strong words of her own on an additional obstacle.  “The fact is,” she wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last fall, “even if everything in the Pentagon and the VA were working perfectly, the government simply does not have the resources – or culture, for that matter – to support the level of need after 10 years of war, and it never will.”

Are you angry yet?

Combat and active duty experiences create their own patterns of post-traumatic stress for our service members.  What are the special problems that enter the lives of military spouses and families, leaving trauma in their wake?  I will return to answer that question next week.