Military suicides happen far too often.  Alarming statistics from studies of suicide by active duty service members and veterans both paint a tragic picture.  The years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the multiple deployments, have taken their physical and emotional tolls.  Over the last few months, I’ve kept this issue in the forefront of my blog posts.  Lately, I’ve highlighted a side to military suicide about which few studies have been done and statistics are largely unavailable: suicide by military spouses.

I’ve drawn heavily from the words of 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.  I’ve reviewed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress (including suicide and suicide attempts), and the inadequate mental health treatment currently available to military spouses.  Today I’m going to go into more detail about the stresses experienced by military families.  I’ll conclude with Deborah and Kristy’s suggestions for ways the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs could better serve the mental health needs of military families.

In January, 2011, Deborah Mullen addressed the Military Health System Annual Conference.  She opened with a direct quote from a letter by a young military spouse.  “It is infinitely worse to be left behind,” she read, “a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to the one you love.  You slowly eat your heart out with anxiety and to endure such suspense is simply the hardest of all trials that come to an army wife.”

The letter’s young author?  Libby Custer, wife of General George Custer, writing in May of 1876.  “The nature of war changes,” Ms. Mullen observes.  “Weapons get smarter . . . tactics get sharper . . . breakthrough medical advances save more and more lives.  But the stress and the anxiety felt by those who are left behind NEVER changes.”

Besides the agony of waiting, other sources of stress for military spouses and families include reintegration and reunion challenges, Deborah explains.  “A combat tour may last a year, but the effects of that tour on the service member and family may last much longer.”  Spousal and child abuse cases are rising in military families.  Families of service members who’ve sustained serious physical injuries may endure long-term relocation to receive treatment, and children “may be left at home with family or friends”, breaking the immediate family apart.

Or maybe the returning service member has suffered the signature wound of our Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: an “invisible” wound from PTSD or TBI.  Spouses and children “don’t understand why their parent looks the same, but isn’t the same,” Deborah continues.  And “for those children whose mom or dad died – either by the enemy or by their own hand – this war will never really end.”

How can the DoD and VA better serve the mental health needs of military families?  Deborah Mullen and Kristy Kaufmann, writing for the New York Times, make the following key suggestions:

1. Really listen to military families, look at things through their eyes, to better understand their special needs and challenges.

2. Provide “home-centered” assistance for families in crisis, in which counselors and other assistance personnel come directly into the home to provide needed support.

3. Do a better job of following up on the results of programs currently in place.  New programs are being created all the time, but too often they aren’t reviewed and modified, as necessary, to become truly effective.

4. Develop a more holistic strategy that integrates military families and community support.  Society has a crucial role to play in helping keep military families strong and healthy.

“Ultimately,” Deborah concludes, “spouses tell me they don’t need another program, they don’t need more training.  What they need – what they want – is time.  Time with their spouses.  Time together with their family.  Time with a counselor or a doctor or a minister.  They want time to explore and understand what is happening to them . . . and the patience and understanding of loved ones, friends and the system itself.”

“If you have a broken family,” Kristy warns, “chances are you’re going to have a broken soldier – and vice versa . . . . It will take a nation working together to keep us strong.”

As a young Marine wife told Ms. Mullen, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first day they’re gone, or the last day before they return home, you’re scared all the time.  You pretend to be happy, but you’re living in fear.”  And, Deborah urges, military spouses should not have to face that fear alone.

Through my work, I’m committed to the health and well-being of our nation’s service members and their families.  I don’t want them to be left alone to struggle with their issues of emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress.  I encourage you to join me, in whatever way you can.