When a serving member is deployed overseas (or is away for long periods during training) the whole family can be affected. Family members left behind have to deal with missing the serving member, worrying about his or her safety and might have to make big changes like adjusting to being a sole parent. Older children often step up to take on more responsibility, like providing more care for younger siblings. As military postings often mean being relocated all around Australia, families may regularly miss out on support from friends or family.
Once a member returns home, there will be an inevitable period of re-adjustment for everyone. Having adjusted to new roles in the serving member’s absence, family members aren’t always willing or able to go back to the way things were. Having to re-adjust to the civilian world can make it hard for many veterans to get back into family life. And for some families, mental health problems might have developed since deployment, or become worse.
How mental illness affects families
When someone develops a mental health condition it can have a big impact on the whole family. Mental health problems can affect a person’s ability to be an effective parent. For example, depression can mean people have little motivation or energy, and struggle to spend time with the kids. People can become irritable and less patient with children, or not feel confident enough to set limits. Children who have a parent with a mental health condition are more likely to experience a range of problems. These can include behavioural problems, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, poor coping skills and problems with school. They're also more likely to develop mental health problems themselves, which can continue into adulthood.
Mental health problems can also have a significant effect on partners. Supporting someone with a mental health problem can put partners in some tough situations, like having to cope with alcohol or substance abuse, or suicide threats or attempts. Partners often take on additional responsibilities at home and have to adapt to changes to the family’s lifestyle. This can lead to serious strain in relationships, can make closeness and intimacy more difficult and may even isolate the whole family from valuable social support. Partners of veterans with a mental health problem are more likely than the general population to experience mental health problems themselves, especially anxiety disorders and severe depression.
Coping with the loss of your loved one
Sadly, some families of veterans and serving members have to deal with the loss of their loved one. They may have lost their family member during training or a deployment, or their loss may come years after service from a service-related injury, physical illness or suicide.
For younger families, losing a loved one can be particularly difficult, especially if the loss happens under unexpected circumstances. As well as intense grief, families can often face unexpected problems like financial troubles or adapting to being a single-parent household. For many families, grief may still be present years after the veteran has died. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety associated with the death can also persist, leaving the surviving family members struggling to support each other.
Recent research shows that Australian veterans with mental health conditions are at higher than average risk of committing suicide. Losing a family member by suicide can cause additional problems for those left behind, like feeling angry that a parent, spouse or child has taken their own life and confused about why it happened. They might feel ashamed, like they need to lie about the nature of the death. Families of a veteran who has committed suicide might find it hard to talk to other people about their experience, and can be reluctant to access help to assist them in adjusting to life without their family member.
There is a big difference between feeling angry a lot of the time and being violent, and sometimes people might not recognise violence when it is happening. Violence can include things people do, things people say, threats and intimidating acts. It can also mean making people do things they don’t want to do, or preventing them from doing things that are important to them.
Some questions you might ask yourself to see if your family has a problem with violence include:
- Do you feel afraid of your partner or family member?
- Do you feel like you need to avoid certain topics or ‘walk on eggshells’ so that you don’t set your partner or family member off?
- Does your partner or family member make you feel like you can’t do anything right?
- Do you believe that you deserve to be hurt or treated badly?
- Do you feel helpless or emotionally numb?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you and those close to you might benefit from getting some help. People can change angry, aggressive and violent behaviours with support; a good place to start is the VVCS – the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, or your family doctor. The VVCS information and telephone counselling service can be contacted 24 hours a day on 1800 011 046
My family member is drinking a lot or taking drugs
Drinking and drug use problems can affect partners, children and other family members as well as the individual themselves. As a family member, it might be helpful to think about what role you can play in supporting your loved one as they try and cut back their drinking or drug use, and remember that you might also need support during this difficult time.
We can’t ‘force’ people to change behaviours like drinking or drug use. Here are a few tips that might help you talk about the issues at hand:
- Try not to argue with your loved one about their drinking or drug use – it may make them more determined not to change.
- Try to support and encourage behaviours or changes that are helpful or healthy, rather than criticising the behaviours that are unhelpful or unhealthy.
- Feel free to express your opinion, and be sure to listen when they express theirs.
- Your ability to help and support depends on how you are travelling – sometimes it’s helpful to have someone to support you as you support your family member. See the details on this page about where to find help.
- “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”