Dear Mr. Dad: A few months ago, my husband got back from his 3rd Army deployment—two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD and is getting treatment. But I’m worried that his condition is somehow rubbing off on the rest of the family. Our children are having problems in school, I’m finding myself on edge and agitated all the time, and my temper seems to be getting shorter by the minute. I used to think that if we survived three deployments we could survive anything. But now I’m not so sure. What can I do?
A: First, I want to thank you, your husband, and your kids for your service. What you’re writing about is, sadly, getting more and more common. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), about 25 percent of vets returning from the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are suffering from PTSD. That’s about 500,000 veterans. If we include family members, that number more than doubles.
When I was doing research for my recent book, “The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads,” I interviewed many military spouses who told me story after story about the toll that a veteran’s PTSD takes on his (or her) family. I heard about families that couldn’t drive to the grocery store because the vet would panic if he felt boxed in by other cars—a pretty dangerous situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I heard about little children who innocently came up behind daddy to give him a hug and were frightened by his sudden, defensive reaction—the perfect response for combat, not so much for the living room.
Not surprisingly, returning veterans—particularly those with PTSD—have a higher divorce rate than non-veterans. And in the past few years, we’ve lost more American servicemembers to suicide than to combat. But now, University of Utah researchers Timothy Smith and Catherine Caska are confirming what your family–and many others—have known for quite a while: While PTSD initially affects veterans, it can also have a powerful impact on their spouse.
Smith and Caska worked with two groups of military couples—the veterans in one group had been diagnosed with PTSD, the vets in the other group had not. They measured each couples’ emotional and physiological response to discussions about potentially problematic relationship issues like children and finances.
Overall, compared to the non-PTSD group, couples with PTSD experienced greater emotional and relationship stress, had higher levels of conflict, were more emotionally distant, and were more anxious, angry, and depressed. They also had “greater increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and other indicators of cardiovascular health risk in response to the relationship conflict,” says Caska.
Maybe the most interesting nugget of all was that the partners of veterans with PTSD showed even greater increases in blood pressure and heart rate than the veterans themselves. According to Smith and Caska, that suggests that those spouses could face similar, if not greater, consequences from PTSD.
The good news is that there is help out there for you, your husband, and your children. Start with couples counseling. Then, talk to your base chaplain. Every branch of the service offers programs designed to assist vets and their families—regardless of their religious affiliation (if any). There are also a number of excellent on-line resources. Begin with the VA’s National Center for PTSD, at www.ptsd.va.gov. Give an Hour (www.GiveAnHour.org) provides free mental health services to servicemembers and families. And don’t miss my favorite resource of all, the Military Family Network (www.emilitary.org/).