Mood disorders are a group of mental illnesses characterized by a drastic change in mood. Depression is one of the most common mood disorders that can affect anyone at any time. However, military service members are at a particularly high risk for developing these conditions. Recent studies show that depression is seen much more often in military service members than in civilians.

It’s estimated that up to 14 percent of service members experience depression after deployment. However, this number may be even higher because some service members don’t seek care for their condition. Additionally, about 19 percent of service members report that they experienced traumatic brain injuries during combat. These types of injuries commonly include concussions, which can damage the brain and trigger depressive symptoms.

Multiple deployments and trauma-related stress don’t just increase the risk of depression in service members. Their spouses are also at an increased risk, and their children are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems.

Symptoms of depression in soldiers and their spouses

Military service members and their spouses have higher rates of depression than the general population. Depression is a serious condition characterized by persistent and intense feelings of sadness for extended periods. This mood disorder can impact your mood and behavior. It may also affect various physical functions, such as your appetite and sleep. People with depression often have trouble performing everyday activities. Occasionally, they may also feel as if life isn’t worth living.

Common symptoms of depression include: 

  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or self-hate
  • social isolation
  • a loss of interest in activities and hobbies that used to be pleasurable
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • dramatic changes in appetite along with corresponding weight gain or loss
  • suicidal thoughts or behaviors

In more severe cases of depression, someone may also experience psychotic symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations. This is a very dangerous condition and requires immediate intervention by a mental health professional.

Symptoms of emotional stress in military children

The death of a parent is a reality for many children in military families. Over 2,200 children lost a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan during the War on Terror. Experiencing such a devastating loss at a young age significantly increases the risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and behavioral problems in the future.

Even when a parent returns safely from war, children still have to deal with the stress of military life. This often includes absentee parents, frequent moves, and new schools. Emotional and behavioral issues in children may occur as a result of these changes.

The symptoms of emotional problems in children include:

  • separation anxiety
  • temper tantrums
  • changes in eating habits
  • changes in sleeping habits
  • trouble in school
  • moodiness
  • anger
  • acting out
  • social isolation

The mental health of an at-home parent is a major factor in how children deal with the deployment of their parent. Children of depressed parents are more likely to develop psychological and behavioral problems than those whose parents are dealing with the stress of deployment positively.

The impact of stress on military families

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 1.7 million soldiers served in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2008. Of those soldiers, nearly half have children. These children had to face the challenges that come with having a parent deployed overseas. They also had to cope with living with a parent who may have changed after going to war. Making these adjustments can have a profound impact on a young child or teenager.

According to a 2010 study, children with a deployed parent are particularly susceptible to behavioral problems, stress disorders, and mood disorders. They’re also more likely to experience difficulty in school. This is largely due to the stress that children experience during their parent’s deployment as well as after they come home.

The parent who stays behind during a deployment may also experience similar issues. They often fear for their spouse’s safety and feel overwhelmed by increased responsibilities at home. As a result, they may begin to feel anxious, sad, or lonely while their spouse is away. All of these emotions can eventually lead to depression and other mental disorders.

Studies on depression and violence

Studies of Vietnam-era veterans show the devastating impact of depression on families. Veterans of that war had higher levels of divorce and marital problems, domestic violence, and partner distress than others. Often, soldiers returning from combat will detach from daily life due to emotional problems. This makes it difficult for them to nurture relationships with their spouses and children.

More recent studies of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have examined family function in the near-term after deployment. They found that dissociative behaviors, sexual problems, and sleep troubles had the greatest impact on family relationships.

According to one mental health evaluation, 75 percent of veterans with partners reported at least one “family adjustment issue” upon returning home. Additionally, about 54 percent of veterans reported that they had shoved or shouted at their partner in the months after returning from deployment. The symptoms of depression, in particular, were most likely to result in domestic violence. Service members with depression were also more likely to report that their children were afraid of them or lacked warmth towards them.

Getting help

A counselor can help you and your family members address any issues. These may include relationship problems, financial difficulties, and emotional issues. Numerous military support programs offer confidential counseling to service members and their families. A counselor can also teach you how to cope with stress and grief. Military OneSource, Tricare, and Real Warriors can be helpful resources to get you started.

In the meantime, you can try various coping strategies if you’ve recently returned from deployment and you’re having trouble readjusting to civilian life:

Be patient.

It can take time to reconnect with family after returning from war. This is normal at the beginning, but you may be able to restore the connection over time.

Talk to someone.

Even though you may feel alone right now, people can support you. Whether it’s a close friend or family member, talk to someone you trust about your challenges. This should be a person who’ll be there for you and listen to you with compassion and acceptance.

Avoid social isolation.

It’s important to spend time with friends and family, especially your partner and children. Working to reestablish your connection with loved ones can ease your stress and boost your mood.

Avoid drugs and alcohol.

It may be tempting to turn to these substances during challenging times. However, doing so can make you feel worse and may lead to dependence.

Share losses with others.

You may initially be reluctant to talk about losing a fellow soldier in combat. However, bottling up your emotions can be detrimental, so it’s helpful to talk about your experiences in some way. Try joining a military support group if you’re reluctant to talk about it with someone you know personally. This type of support group can be particularly beneficial because you’ll be surrounded by others who can relate to what you’re experiencing.

These strategies can be very helpful as you adjust to life after combat. However, you’ll need professional medical treatment if you’re experiencing severe stress or sadness.

It’s important to schedule an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional as soon as you have any symptoms of depression or another mood disorder. Getting prompt treatment can prevent symptoms from getting worse and speed up recovery time. 

You Asked, We Answered

  • What should I do if I think my military spouse or child has depression?
  • If your spouse or child demonstrates sadness related to your deployment, it’s quite understandable. It’s time to encourage them to get help from their doctor if you see that their sadness is getting worse or it’s impacting their ability to do things they need to do throughout the day, such as their activities in the house, at work, or at school.

    - Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC