For those in the military, high levels of dedication and commitment are expected from day one on the job – and this includes the risks that come with combat deployments. There can also be demands on the partners and children of those in service: including regularly moving, family separation, worries about deployed personnel, and problems during homecoming. All can be frequent experiences for military families and can adversely affect the health and well-being of family members.
Previous research has found alcohol is a common problem in the UK armed forces. And our latest study has also found that alcohol is a problem for female spouses and partners of military personnel – who are more than twice as likely to report binge-drinking and depression than women in the general population.
There are approximately 70,000 military families in the UK. But not a lot is known about families’ experience of military life, as most research to date has been based in the US. Some of these studies have found high levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military partners, especially when personnel are on combat missions. But there are few studies looking at levels of alcohol use in this group.
Our study is the first to find out more about the health and well-being of UK military partners. We used data from studies at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, King’s College London. We looked at mental health problems – including depression and PTSD among 405 female military partners – all of whom had children. We also looked at their alcohol use.
We then compared the number of military partners showing signs of mental health and alcohol problems to women in the general population who also had children. For this, we used data from the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey.
We found that generally most UK military partners were doing well but that female spouses and partners of military personnel were more likely to have depression and to report binge-drinking than women in the general population. Further tests found that binge-drinking in military partners was linked to longer absences of military personnel from the family home – suggesting poor coping during this time.
We did not find any factors linked to depression but military partners in some of our other research have talked about how some parts of military life, such as regular family separation, difficulties with social connections and partner employment and training have negatively affected their health and well-being. The stresses of caregiving, especially for former service personnel with PTSD, can also negatively affect military partner mental health.
More research is now needed to help find out more about what drives depression and problem drinking among military partners. But GPs and other professionals who have regular contact with military families would also benefit from being aware of these findings so they can help support military partners who may be struggling.
To better understand the health of this population and target support where needed, the NHS should also routinely collect data on whether someone is the spouse or partner of someone in the UK Armed Forces. The mental health of the other family members, – such as parents and siblings – who are not often thought about in research, should also be looked at to better understand the impacts of service life on the wider family.
Campaigns aimed at reducing alcohol use in military families would also be beneficial. This could include adapting programmes and interventions that address drinking among service personnel. Research, for example, has found that mobile apps can be helpful in tracking and reducing alcohol use among former service personnel – so a similar approach may also work for military partners.
The main findings of this piece relating to mental health and alcohol use among UK military partners were part of a PhD studentship funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Army Families Federation.