Mood disorders may affect anyone at any time, but military service members are at a particularly high risk for developing conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Defense Medical Surveillance Report, nine percent of service members reported dealing with symptoms of PTSD. More than 27 percent suffered from symptoms of depression. Additionally, 19 percent of soldiers returning from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq reported that they had potentially experienced traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) during their deployment, including concussions. Post-concussion syndrome may also lead to depression. 

Multiple and prolonged deployments and trauma-related stress don’t just put service members at a heightened risk for depression. Often, their spouses suffer from depression, too and their children experience emotional and behavioral issues.

The Impact of Stress on Military Families

By the end of 2008, 1.7 million soldiers had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2010, there were 1.1 million military spouses (including those of reserve members) and 700,000 children who had endured one or more parental deployment.

According to a 2010 study, three to eight-year-old children experienced:

  • an 18 percent increase in behavioral disorders
  • a 19 percent increase in stress disorders
  • an 11 percent increase in outpatient visits for behavioral issues while a parent was deployed.

Many of these children also must adjust to a returning parent who has been “profoundly changed by war,” according to a 2009 study.  

The parent who stays behind during a deployment (typically the mother) faces increased family responsibilities at home. On top of fears about their spouse’s safety, they often have to deal with additional financial burdens and other stresses such as isolation, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and feelings of being overwhelmed. These are all symptoms of clinical depression.

Symptoms of Depression for Soldiers and Their Spouses

Service members and their spouses have significantly higher rates of major depressive disorder (MDD) than the general population. Symptoms of MDD include: 

  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or self-hate
  • social isolation
  • loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities and hobbies
  • insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
  • dramatic changes in appetite along with corresponding weight gain or loss
  • suicidal ideas or behaviors

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

Symptoms of Emotional Stress in Military Kids

Sometimes the unthinkable happens and a soldier dies in combat, leaving a spouse and children behind. Ten to 15 percent of kids who have lost a parent in war experience full-blown depression.

Even if a parent returns safely, they have to deal with the stress of military life. This often includes frequent moves, absentee parents, and new schools. Emotional and behavioral issues in children may result. Symptoms of emotional problems for kids include:

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

The mental health of the at-home parent is a major factor in how children—especially young kids—deal with a deployment. 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.

A History of Violence

Studies of Vietnam-era veterans show the devastating impact of depression and PTSD on families. Veterans of that war had higher levels of divorce and marital problems, family 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 looked at near-term family functioning in post-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. Fifty-four percent of veterans said they had shouted at, shoved, or pushed a partner in the months following deployment.

Symptoms of depression, in particular, were most likely to result in domestic violence. In addition, service members with depression and PTSD were more likely to report that their children were “afraid of them or lacked warmth towards them.”

A Gathering Storm

According to Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, most soldiers who return from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq—approximately one-fifth of whom will suffer from depression and PTSD—will not seek treatment within the military health care system. 

“What we are hearing from the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] is the prediction that most of those people—about 70 percent—will not seek treatment from the Department of Defense or VA, so we are talking about a gathering storm for the civilian sector, for the public mental health system,” Insel said.