Independence Day is a day where we take time to celebrate the United States – its independence, history, people, and traditions. It is these same patriotic principles that members of the armed services don their uniforms every day to honor and protect. But behind these brave men and women stand their families – the backbone of our military that often serves unrecognized in the shadows.
Each year, Blue Star Families (BSF) conducts an annual survey of military personnel and their families. The results of the 2018 survey were released earlier this year and highlight some of the most significant issues facing military families today. To help discuss some of the key main findings from the survey, Dr. Nichole Ayres, Clinic Director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Valley Cities, volunteered to wear her dual hats as clinician serving veterans and military spouses and a military spouse herself and expand upon some of the key findings from the BSF survey.
- One of the key findings of the study this year was that military spouses reported financial stress as their top stressor. Many people think that military families have lots of resources, like on-base housing or access to Base Exchange retail outlets that offer lower priced goods. Shouldn’t these resources offset military families’ financial concerns?
For many military families, these resources do offset many financial concerns; however, resources like on-post housing are finite. Frequent moves can be as financially as it is emotionally stressing for many families, especially young families new to the military. For example, an E3 with under two years of service makes just under $24,000 per year. When they move to a new station with their family, they could spend days, weeks, or months waiting for on-post housing leaving them paying for a hotel. If the family decides to live off-post, they do receive a basic allowance for housing (BAH), but this is a flat rate based on rank and not family size. And if military families have to move further away from the installation to find affordable housing, this can add more financial and family stressors due to time spent away from the family and money spent on gas. This is not to say there are no financial supports in place to offset these costs, there absolutely are, but I have found that often military families are unsure how to access them or have costs beyond these resources.
- The survey also identified two, intertwined issues that contributed to financial stress. Military families are required to move frequently – the survey found that these frequent moves made it harder for spouses to find employment, and the lack of employment contributed to financial distress. Do you have any insights on the difficulties of finding meaningful employment as a military spouse?
Finding meaningful employment as a military spouse can be incredibly difficult. While we were stationed in Korea, I remember interviewing for a job on post and being told I was overqualified. As a new spouse on an instillation in a foreign country that didn’t have any jobs in my field, it was disheartening to hear they considered not hiring me due that my education level. Later in my career, I was passed over for a promotion after disclosing we may receive orders to another station within the year. I felt like I was doing the right thing by sharing this information but ultimately this led me to think twice before I disclosed our connection to the military to employers. This is a dilemma so many military spouses face when applying for jobs, especially when they are asked about gaps in employment which are likely due to frequent relocations.
Even for spouses who have a career that is relatively portable, such as mental health, it can be incredibly challenging transferring professional licenses from one state to the next. This lack of transferability can create strain on military families who must pay licensing fees in every new state as well as wait for the licensing process to be completed before starting a new job.
Additionally, when a military spouse does decide to seek employment finding affordable and reliable childcare can be a significant barrier. The BSF survey found that 72% of military families cannot find reliable childcare. While there are childcare resources on military instillations, they can have limited availability. Many military families ultimately must decide to pay for childcare off-post, which can be expensive, or staying home with their children.
- People don’t typically think that mental health counseling can help people deal with financial stress. Can someone experiencing stress related to their finances benefit from seeking care?
Someone can absolutely benefit from mental health counseling when experiencing stress related to finances. Chronic stress, regardless of the source, can negatively impact our health and wellbeing in a significant way. If left unaddressed, stress can lead to additional challenges such as anxiety and depression, so it is important to reach out for support before things get too overwhelming. At our Cohen Clinics specifically, support can be twofold. First, a counselor can help someone gain additional tools that can help them better manage stress before it bleeds into other parts of their life. Additionally, a counselor or case manager can provide more concrete support such as teaching skills like budgeting, interviewing or job seeking skills which can improve financial management or employability.
- Military spouses also reported that their kids experienced everything from anxiety and sleeping problems to diminished academic performance when their spouse experienced deployment or another military-related separation of 3-months or more. Are there things military families can do to prepare for a deployment or other separation?
Separation is tough for every member of the family; however, often readiness focuses more on the service member and less on the family who also play an important role the service members readiness. When I work with military families, whether it be as a therapist or as fellow military spouse, I tend focus on three things: communication, connection and routine.
Prior to deployment or other separation, it is vital for military families to have a clear conversation regarding communication during separation. This can help manage expectations regarding the frequency and type of contact that is realistic while a service member is deployed. For children, it is also important to help them understand they can communicate with their deployed loved one through several ways, not just over the phone. This could be through letters, videos, care packages, or emails. In our family, we have a Dropbox where we share videos, picture and letters when we are unable to communicate directly. Another helpful activity is to record videos of the service member doing everyday activities such as reading books or singing a special song which can be played while separated.
Connection is important both within the family before deployment and within the community during separation. Having the service member spend special time with each child can have a meaningful impact on coping during separation. I have also found creating a special count down for when the service member returns to be helpful for children. Additionally, families often feel isolated during separations which can increase the stress felt by children and spouses alike. One way to connect with other families experiencing similar challenges is through the Family Readiness Group (or branch equivalent) which can be a source of support and comradery during separation. Most instillations also have several social activities that families can participate in through the family service programs as well as through the Chaplain Corps.
Finally, it is easy to fall out of your normal routine when half the parenting team is away which can create stress and anxiety for the whole family. Before separation, it is helpful for parents to present a united front that the ‘house rules’ will remain the same during deployment. So much of the stress military families experience is in during separation and reunion because routines are turned upside down. Consistency at home can be an important tool for helping military children cope with the stress of deployment.
- Finally, military spouses with mental health diagnoses felt that they were less connected to the military and civilian communities where they lived. Do you have strategies you would suggest to help spouses with mental health challenges integrate into their communities?
It is easy to feel disconnected from both the civilian and military communities, especially as a new spouse. I know I have many times in the past ten years and what helped me most was finding my “tribe.” It can be intimidating to put yourself our there in a new place but joining programs like the Family Readiness Group or social events on post can get you in touch with others who likely feel the same way you do. I also suggest finding a way to get involved in your community. This might be through employment, but it also could be through volunteering your time at your child’s school, a Boys and Girls Club, your church or even on-post. If being a military spouse has taught me anything, it has been to push beyond my comfort zone because often you are having to build a new community at each new station. Finally, if mental health challenges are interfering with being able to integrate into your community it is important to reach out for support. Counseling can help to address those challenges and identify new ways to make connections.