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Psychological State of Military Families When Troops Are Deployed

Research on partners and children of military members shows there are real psychological consequences.

Psychological State of Military Families When Troops Are Deployed

By Marguerite Ward, Business Insider


© Reuters
  • The U.S. is sending 3,500 troops to the Middle East, meaning many military families have to part with their loved ones. 

  • Deployment brings new obstacles for military spouses, like increased anxiety and poor health habits, research shows.
  •  Children of deployed parents are more likely to suffer from depression, among other consequences.
  • Increased social support and therapy can help military families survive hard times.

#WWIII, #NoWarWithIran, and other trending Twitter hashtags from the past week reveal the anxiety people across the globe are feeling amid near-boiling-point tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The U.S. is sending 3,500 Army paratroopers to the Middle East, reports Tuesday revealed, adding more uncertainty - especially for military families.

To add to that distress, those being deployed have been told to leave their cellphones at home.

Eighteen-year old Melissa Morales is one of those family members caught off guard. Her twin sister, Cristina, was scheduled to leave Wednesday, she said in an interview with CNN.

"As her twin sister, it kind of hurts. It stings," she told the outlet.

Research shows deployment can have a very real psychological impact on family members, particularly military spouses and children.

Among a range of feelings, studies have shown that families of deployed military personnel experience a range of challenging emotions.



Learning of a spouse's deployment can mean "emotional chaos."

© CAPT. ROBYN HAAKE/US ARMY/AFP via Getty Images

A qualitative study of 11 women married to deployed Army Reserve military members had a heart-wrenching finding.

Nearly all of the women described the moment they learned their husband would have to deploy fell into a category researchers call "emotional chaos," or experiencing a range of emotions - like stress, disbelief, and sadness - all at once.



Partners of those deployed report higher levels of anxiety and stress.

© Andrew Craft/Getty Images

One study of 130 U.S. military spouses (68 spouses of non-deployed servicemen and 62 spouses of servicemen deployed to a combat zone) took a close look at stress.

Spouses of deployed servicemen had markedly higher stress scores than spouses of non-deployed service members, the study found. Also, anxiety levels were "significantly higher in spouses of deployed versus non deployed servicemen," the researchers found.



Spouses are at an increased risk for substance abuse. 

© Andrew Craft/Stringer/Getty
UK-based King's Centre for Military Health Research collected data from 405 women in military families with at least one child.

These women reported higher rates of binge drinking than women in the general population, 9.7% compared to 8.9%, respectively. They also reported higher rates of depression, 7% compared to 3%.


For parents, there's often no room for self-care.

© Andrew Craft/Stringer/Getty

When spouses deploy, many partners are left to take care of their families by themselves.

One 2018 study found that spouses report not having enough time to take care of themselves. As one participant said, when it comes to taking care of themselves, "Everything else comes first." Time to go to the gym and money to buy healthy food is nonexistent, they said.


Children are at a higher risk for depression and other psychosocial issues.

© Andrew Craft/Stringer/Getty

Kids with a deployed parent show higher incidents of lashing out, sadness, worry, and depression, a meta analysis of several studies shows.



Toddlers of deployed parents can experience confusion and separation anxiety.

© Andrew Craft/Stringer/Getty

The American Academy of Pediatrics writes on its blog that toddlers "may not understand why mom or dad isn't there for bedtime" and that school-aged children "may worry mom or dad will be hurt."

A 2014 research analysis supports this finding, with author Dr. Suzannah Creech, a research psychologist with Veterans Affairs and a professor at Brown University writing, "For children, deployment-separation can bring a sense of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and absence." 

Toddlers of deployed parents can experience confusion and separation anxiety. The American Academy of Pediatrics writes on its blog that toddlers "may not understand why mom or dad isn't there for bedtime" and that school-aged children "may worry mom or dad will be hurt."



Trouble sleeping and poor academic performance can weigh on kids.

© Andrew Craft/Stringer/Getty

A 2009 study that looked at children ages 5-12 with a deployed parent found that 56% had trouble sleeping and 14% had school-related issues.



Social support and therapy are proven to help spouses and children.

© US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Snider
While these findings paint a grim picture, there is help out there for military families.

Studies show that factors such as increased social support and cognitive behavioral therapy, where people learn to challenge their patterns of thought, can greatly help families during and after a loved one's deployment.

Within military families individually, maintaining shared routines, rituals and set rules help keep members feeling stable and grounded. And regular family meetings before, during, and after deployment can be helpful, researchers report.


Editor's note: If you or someone you know is struggling, please call the US National Suicide Prevention Helpline anytime at 1-800-273-8255.

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Health Magazine: Psychological State of Military Families When Troops Are Deployed
Psychological State of Military Families When Troops Are Deployed
Research on partners and children of military members shows there are real psychological consequences.
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