Military life has unique stressors, including regularly moving towns, deployments and exposure to stressful and dangerous situations.
About Veterans' families
Having a family member in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) can involve a great deal of pride and provide a strong sense of community.
Members often describe the military in familial terms, due to the strong bonds, shared values and sense of belonging afforded by Defence careers. These positive identifications can also extend to ex-ADF members, veterans and their families.
Military life can also involve difficulties for families, particularly in managing the expectations of military and civilian cultures. Values that may be important in a military context such as discipline and obedience to authority may not always mesh with civilian behaviours and values, such as negotiation and compromise.
The practical realities of military life have significant impacts on family functioning, including:
- long absences during training and deployments
- changes in roles and responsibilities
- adapting to regular relocations, and
- managing upheavals in careers and schooling
Military families may face particular challenges:
Families have to cope with the potential for exposure to extraordinary risks, such as the injury or death in combat of a family member.
Transition out of the military
Separation from Defence can involve changes in location, finances and family roles (e.g. the partner of a veteran becoming the main income earner).
When a serving member is deployed (or absent for long periods during pre-deployment training), the whole family is affected.
During deployment, family members have to cope with the absence of the serving member and uncertainty around his or her safety. They also have to adapt by taking on new roles. For example, partners may have to take sole responsibility for managing budgets, and older children may have to care for their siblings.
The nature of military postings may mean that additional support from friends or family is not readily available. These roles and relationships often have to be renegotiated once the serving member returns.
Reintegration into family life can also be hampered by mental health issues exacerbated by, or developed since deployment.
As in any family environment, mental health issues can have a significant impact upon individual family members and the functioning of the family unit.
The emotional and physical impact of exposure to combat, humanitarian, peacekeeping and peacemaking experiences on veterans can have long-term consequences for many families. For example, recurring depression, chronic substance abuse or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may lead to long-term conflict or disengagement within the family.
Anxiety about the veteran’s mental health and taking on the role of carer can also take a toll on family members.
Children who have a parent with a mental health issue are more likely to experience behavioural problems, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, poor coping skills and academic difficulties, and are more likely to develop mental health issues themselves.
Veterans’ mental health can also significantly impact upon partners. In addition to dealing with problems associated with mental health issues such as emotional withdrawal, substance abuse or suicide threats or attempts, partners may have to take on additional responsibilities in the family home, or adapt to unwanted lifestyle changes such as increased isolation from their friends and community.
The symptoms associated with PTSD (intrusive memories, hyperarousal, avoidance and negative mood) can lead to particular difficulties in family relationships. Hyperarousal can contribute to aggression and domestic violence.
Avoidance can inhibit intimacy between a veteran and their partner, and reduce satisfaction with the relationship.
Partners of veterans have also been said to experience vicarious trauma as a result of being exposed to their partner’s PTSD.
Partners can experience anxiety, depression, social isolation and feelings of hopelessness as a result of their partner’s trauma and subsequent symptoms. Partners have talked about ‘walking on eggshells’ around their veteran partner and being afraid of the veteran’s symptoms.
Help for families
Open Arms offers services to veterans and their families.
Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800 011 046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.
Open Arms offers group treatment programs and educational workshops, relationship retreats, and suicide prevention workshops.