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Deployment Takes Toll on Army Wives

Spouses show higher rates of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 13 (HealthDay News) -- War isn't just tough on soldiers. Army wives whose husbands were deployed have higher rates of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other mental health issues than the wives of soldiers who stayed home, a new study shows.

Researchers looked at the medical records of more than 250,000 wives, accounting for most women married to active-duty U.S. Army personnel.

Between 2003 and 2006, about 34 percent of the women's husbands deployed for one to 11 months, 35 percent deployed for longer than 11 months, while 31 percent of soldiers were not sent overseas.

Among wives of soldiers deployed for up to 11 months, researchers found almost 3,500 more diagnoses of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and other mental health issues than among wives who husbands stayed home.

The more months a soldier was deployed, the greater the toll on his wife. Among the wives of soldiers gone for longer than 11 months during the four-year period, they found more than 5,300 additional diagnoses of mental health issues.

"The wives of soldiers who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing greater mental health problems and have a greater need for mental health services," said study author Alyssa Mansfield, a research epidemiologist at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., who was at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when she conducted the research. "We also found the longer the [soldier] was deployed, the more likely the spouse was to have a mental health diagnosis."

The study findings are published in the Jan. 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain who is serving in Afghanistan and author of While They're At War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, said the findings are not surprising -- anxiety and sleepless nights go with the territory. Recently, a fellow military wife confided that she was taking antidepressants to cope with her husband's deployment. "She said, 'Oh, everyone is on Prozac here,'" Henderson said.

For the study, researchers excluded male spouses of female soldiers because their numbers are relatively small. Spouses of Reserve and National Guard, as well as those of active-duty Army personnel who had been in the military less than five years, were also not included because researchers did not have full access to medical information on them during the period before, during and after deployment. The study authors controlled for prior diagnosis of mental health issues.

Still, much remains unanswered about the stresses of war on spouses, including whether depression and other mental health issues are most likely to emerge before, during or after deployment, the authors noted.

Each phase of a deployment can cause stress that could contribute to mental health problems, Mansfield said. Before the deployment, there's anxiety as women prepare themselves and their children for a long absence.

During deployment, women take on added responsibilities as sole caretaker for their home and children, while worrying their husband will be killed or injured. "We know from prior work that the stress surrounding deployment is not limited to the dates of deployments," Mansfield said.

Even the homecoming, called the reintegration period, isn't necessarily easy on the family, Henderson said. Soldiers may come home changed, perhaps because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or injuries, but in more subtle ways, too.

Wives can also change during the time apart, becoming more independent or simply accustomed to taking care of the children alone.

"The expectations are that everything is going to be OK when he comes home, that any problems we have will be behind us," Henderson said. "But of course, everybody is different. And the longer the deployment, the more things change."

In a second study from the same journal, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel who were given morphine immediately after sustaining combat injuries were less likely to have PTSD later on.

Of 696 patients, 243 were diagnosed with PTSD while 453 were not. About 61 percent of those who went on to develop PTSD had received morphine during resuscitation or trauma care efforts within an hour of the injury-causing event, while 76 percent of those who did not develop PTSD had been giving morphine.

"Our findings suggest that the use of morphine during trauma care may reduce the risk of subsequent development of PTSD after serious injury," wrote the researchers from the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

More information

The U.S. Department of Defense's Military Homefront has information on resources for spouses.

SOURCES: Alyssa Mansfield, Ph.D., M.P.H., RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Kristin Henderson, author, Washington, D.C.; Jan. 14, 2010, New England Journal of Medicine

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