Family fallout: Understanding the impact of military deployment

The images of fallen Canadian soldiers that were beamed into houses across the nation during the Afghanistan combat mission were a heartbreaking reminder of the supreme sacrifice made by Canadian Forces men and women. The mission’s conclusion, however, carries another compelling story of the price paid by some military personnel and their families in terms of health and well-being. Surprisingly, despite all our society’s advancements, there still is a real need to unlock the many mysteries connected to military service and health.

Many military health researchers, including Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) scientists, have committed their careers to supporting better decision making and introducing scientifically-based solutions in key areas such as injuries resulting from blast exposure; medical interventions; mental health; and psycho/social impacts on health and resilience. DRDC is also reaching out to form new partnerships to ensure that the brightest minds are applied to the most pressing questions.

For example, among the most prevalent issues in need of further research is problems faced by military families. Dr. Sanela Dursun and her research section at Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis have teamed with DRDC and Chief Military Personnel in the hope of finding some answers.

Challenges for families
“The Canadian Forces have traditionally recognized the need to look after their soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen, as part of the unwritten ‘social contract’ between the organization and the members who put their lives on the line,” Dr. Dursun says. “Research has demonstrated that the well-being of CF members’ families actually has an impact on operational effectiveness.

“The military lifestyle and operational tempo permeates almost every aspect of the lives of members and their spouses. Military spouses face a number of unique stressors as they attempt to meet the demands placed upon them by the military institution. Elements of the military lifestyle which influence the well-being of family members include: frequent relocations; temporary housing; un- or under-employment; separations, some of which may last six months or longer; deployments to hostile situations; and, the long and often unpredictable work hours of military personnel. Any combination of these factors may be associated with deterioration in the psychological health and well-being of military spouses and their children. Perhaps the most significant among these stressors is the separation of military family members due to operational deployments.

“Deployments and duty-related separations are defining experiences. There is a distinct staged process that families go through when a member is deployed, reflecting the pre-deployment phase, the deployment phase, and the post-deployment phase. Just prior to deployment, conflicts in the family are at their peak, and anxiety, apprehension and sadness seem to be the most common feelings. During the deployment phase, many spouses continue to experience a period of emotional destabilization and disorganization characterized by reports of sadness, depression, disorientation, anxiety, loneliness, feeling overwhelmed, numbness, anger and relief.

“Of particular concern is the added pressure of single parenting, as many spouses also hold full-time employment of their own. Along with the added responsibilities of childcare, the children themselves may experience specific challenges during deployment, such as anxiety associated with the absence and safety of their deployed parent.

“As the deployment ends, the reintegration phase begins. In anticipation of homecoming, both excitement and apprehension increase. During the deployment, roles have been redefined, new family systems have developed, and both serving members and their spouses have inevitably changed. Military members who were involved in combat or experienced other traumatic events may introduce the after-effects of these experiences into their family system. Thus, it could be expected that stressors related to spouses’ experiences during the reintegration phase, such as arguing over family roles, conflict (in some cases, including violence) and lack of communication would further contribute to diminished spousal well-being and reduced support for the military career.

“Given that the military lifestyle represents a major stressor for the entire family, a lack of emotional support from the spouse and marital dissatisfaction might also be indirectly associated with members’ intentions to leave the military. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what factors contribute to the well-being of military families. Understanding the factors that promote psychological resiliency may provide important insights and the means to prevent or reduce psychological stress encountered, for instance through modifications to programs and services provided by the organization.”

Some of the research projects completed in this area have already contributed to a greater appreciation of the important role that families play in ensuring the well-being of military members. It enabled evidence-based decision making by the senior leadership and has influenced a number of high level initiatives such as the CF Family Services Summit.

Bobbi Jo Bradley is manager of public affairs for Defence Research and Development Canada.

Author: Bobbi Jo Bradley from the Oct/Nov 2011 issue published

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