By Molly Blake
In April 2011, a young Army wife posted a chilling comment on her blog that began, "If you are reading this, you should know that I'm dead."
The 27-year-old woman continued, "at least I hope I'm dead ... it would be awful to fail at your own suicide."
The woman reportedly received treatment and didn't kill herself, and her blog post helped put the spotlight on a serious issue: the mental health issues of military spouses.
While there has been much written about the suicide rate among soldiers (in July 2012, 38 soldiers committed suicide -- more than died in Afghanistan that month), the suffering of military spouses has received relatively short shrift. That's changing. Blue Star Families, a nonprofit where I work, found in its recent annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey that a full 10 percent of military spouses admitted that they considered suicide. The spouse-suicide phenomenon is both underreported (10 percent of respondents also said they preferred not to answer the question) and unexplored. "There is obviously a problem there that our community should rally to find solutions to," says research director Dr. Vivian Greentree, who is also a military spouse.
As a military spouse, I'm not surprised by what Blue Star Families found. The typical military spouse is young, between the ages of 19 and 22, and since 9/11, 26 percent have endured deployments totaling 13 to 24 months. That's not including a spouse's training, field time away from home and other assignments. Sixteen percent have chalked up to three years of deployments.
The unemployment rate among military spouses is a staggering 28 percent and a whopping 62 percent say that their service member has exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress but chose not to seek treatment. And since just 1 percent of our nation shoulders the burden of war, it should come as no surprise that stress levels have pushed many to the brink.
My second daughter was born while my husband was in Iraq and on more than one occasion, I found myself nearly incapacitated with sadness. In those moments, I was lucky enough to find the strength to climb out of that dark place. Fortunately, my parents, having agreed to stay with me for a month after her birth, were never far away.
Not all military spouses have such support, so many of us are encouraged by digital tools being developed. One solution that is being hailed by doctors including Dr. Peter Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, as a "step in the right direction," is Facebook's online approach.
Fred Wolens, a spokesperson for the social media giant, says the crisis tool provides tailored military-related counseling information to military families. It works by allowing friends and family members to report a user who is exhibiting signs that they are struggling emotionally. The anonymous reports go up the chain where a team quickly determines if the threat is legit. "Facebook messages the user and reporter with links to national suicide prevention material," after which VA personnel can respond via phone, text or online chat.
"We know it's been used," said Wolens.
At Bernstein's Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy and Trauma Treatment in California, he and his team advocate for a holistic approach to treating mental illness. He says "there is hope for military spouses who are isolated and suffering," and applauds the online efforts to reach out during crisis.
Meanwhile nonprofits like Blue Star Families will continue to look for insight into this sensitive issue and encourage spouses in need to seek help. But perhaps more important is the day-to-day dealings that civilians have with military spouses and their perception that "milspouses" can manage deployments, separations, kids and houses without so much as breaking a sweat.
I don't know how many times a civilian friend has said to me 'I don't know how you do it,' " said Amy Bushatz, a military spouse and the managing editor of SpouseBUZZ. "We need our civilian friends to know that sometimes this is so hard that it can push us towards the breaking point."
"Not all crises are the end," added Dr. Bernstein. "It can be the beginning."
Warning Signs Of Suicide
The more of these signs that a person shows, the greater the risk.
- Talking about wanting to die.
- Looking for a way to kill oneself.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others.
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
- Displaying extreme mood swings.
Molly Blake is a freelance writer and Marine Corps spouse. She writes about issues affecting military families. You can see her work at MollyBlake.com.
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