How War Affects Families

by Kevin B. Doyle

War and FamiliesThe effects of war go far beyond the deployed service member. Children and families struggle with an absent parent or spouse as well as unexpected changes when the service member returns.

Studies of these returning service members and veterans have found rates of 4 to 14 percent for depression, 12 to 25 percent for PTSD, 11 to 19 percent for traumatic brain injury, and 18 to 35 percent for any mental health risk or concern.

"She'd have nightmares, where I wake up to her screams. She'd be drenched in sweat, thrashing." William shares. "Three years later, those have lessened, but she still flinches at loud noises and panics in crowds."

Along with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries have become the "signature wounds" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of March 2012, an estimated 200,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with a TBI since the wars started. Many studies have concluded that a connection between TBI and violence does seem to exist.

A Swedish Study, published in 2012, followed 20,000 people for 35 years. Researchers noted that 9 percent of all TBI-afflicted study participants were implicated in a violent crime at some point after sustaining the injury. Only 3 percent of those without a brain injury ever committed a violent crime.

Several recent high-profile acts of violence allegedly involving active or former soldiers are bringing attention on what can go wrong for troops both in the war zone and after they come home.

When a Parent Leaves

Forty-three percent of our active duty service members have children. Children miss mom or dad. They worry that the absent parent is hungry or lonely or hurt. Very young children might exhibit separation anxiety, temper tantrums, and changes in eating habits. School-age children often show a decline in academic performance, and have mood changes or physical complaints. Teens can become angry and act out, or withdraw and show signs of apathy.

Many military families find themselves stationed in an unfamiliar city, far from the friends and relatives that comprise their support group. For the parent who stays behind, increased family responsibilities, financial issues, isolation, and fear for their spouse's safety can cause anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

"We've seen an increase in military families experiencing crisis," a social worker near Joint Base MacChord Lewis shares. "The problems range from depression, drugs, abuse to injury and abandonment."

For young children, the at-home parent's mental health affects the child's distress level. Parents reporting clinically significant stress are more likely to have children identified as "high-risk" for psychological and behavioral problems.

Back Home

Vietnam veterans with PTSD had higher levels of marital problems, family violence, and partner distress than those without PTSD. Their children present had behavioral problems. Those with the most symptoms had families with the worst functioning.

One in five U.S. troops coming back from war in Iraq and Afghanistan have signs of PTSD or other mental distress.

Mike sustained a mild traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. "I don't see my wife and I fixing things. My behavior after the injury was just too hard on her."

Studies of personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have looked at family functioning during the post-deployment period. Seventy-five percent of the veterans with partners reported at least one family adjustment issue, including shouting, shoving or pushing a current or former partner.

Even in families not affected by trauma and even among families with both parents back home, kids show signs of stress. A study by the University of California -- Los Angeles looked nearly 200 families of active duty Army and Marine Corps personnel. The problems for many children didn't go away. A year after parents returned from combat, 30 percent of the children exhibited clinical levels of anxiety requiring possible treatment. The children's average age was 8 years old.

Keeping Families Together

Take advantage of programs set in place to help families adjust like Military OneSource.

Know the signs and symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Denial and short term memory loss, stuttering, anger issues all are common following a brain injury.

Be involved in therapy. Work together as a family and try to incorporate the healing process with everyone who is affected. From our house to yours, a very happy Memorial Day!