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Study shows deployments’ impact on soldiers’ wives

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Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:16 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Elaine Wilson

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, - Army wives whose husbands deploy seek mental health services at a higher rate than others, and the longer the deployment, the greater the impact, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted the study, which was published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Study investigators compared the rates of mental health diagnoses and use of mental health services between wives whose husbands had deployed with those whose husbands hadn't deployed, using a sampling of about 250,000 active-duty Army wives, ages 18 to 48.

'A distinct pattern'

"We found a distinct pattern," said Army Col. (Dr.) Charles Engel, a study co-investigator and associate chair of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "The wives of servicemembers who deployed ... used more services when they had a diagnosis and more frequently received mental health diagnoses than those wives whose husbands didn't deploy."

The wives also were categorized by the total length of their spouses' deployments. Investigators compared wives whose spouses hadn't deployed, those who had deployed for less than a year and those who had deployed for more than a year. "The longer the husband had been deployed, the more we saw an excess of disorders," Engel noted.

Increase in alcohol use

The mental health diagnoses that were elevated were, for the most part, those related to stress, Engel explained, such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders. Investigators also found an increase in alcohol use. They didn't, however, find an excess of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The stress of deployment (for spouses) really isn't the same as the kind of stress that causes PTSD," Engel said. Rather than the types of traumatic events that trigger post-traumatic stress, wives encounter stressors such as overwhelming demands at home and the uncertainty of having a loved one deployed, he explained.

The study used anonymous data from a military health system database, which captures care from the military health system and through Tricare military health care program networks.

"It was a very important use of the health tracking systems at our disposal in the military," Engel said. "These systems increasingly put us in a position to be able to look, in ways the civilian sector really just can't, at the health impact of various things."

But use of the database limited the study to active-duty wives, Engel acknowledged. "One of the limitations of the findings is that we weren't able to include National Guard or Reserve wives; we can't be sure their health care is captured by the military system when their husband is demobilized," he said. "They may be getting care from other sources primarily."

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