- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

Suicidal tendencies, depression and self-destructive behavior, known as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, afflict thousands of soldiers returning from combat zones.

Many military spouses also experience PTSD symptoms.

“I thought all would be great when Sam got back from Iraq,” said Jennifer Yarborough, a military spouse living in San Antonio, Texas. Her husband, Sam, was in Iraq from September 2006 until January 2008. “But my mood swings into depression became too much to cope with. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”

PTSD can affect any person exposed to a traumatic event, experts say. Individuals who have experienced or witnessed an incident that involves actual or possible serious injury or death can develop the stress disorder. The disorder can include recurring feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.

“While [Sam] was in Iraq, I would get so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed some days. Now that he is home, I still get very depressed. I can’t sleep [because of nightmares], and I question Sam’s love for me and our kids,” Mrs. Yarborough said.

Many spouses try to suppress symptoms of PTSD. Yet experts say it is better to confront the disorder and get help as soon as possible. Military spouses are eligible to receive sessions with a psychologist.

During a warrior’s deployment, spouses who are left behind deal with being a single parent, managing their household and career, and making financial decisions. Spouses can struggle with the constant fear of the unknown, combat-related injuries of their loved one or even the death of their partner. Any of these can exert a heavy psychological toll.

Some spouses do not regard the current support services available to be satisfactory. These include direct contact support via phone with a counselor, blogs on the Internet, many articles on the topic and support groups.

“Many of the sites I’ve gone to seem a bit unrealistic to me,” said Justice Williams, a military spouse in Fort Hood, Texas, whose husband was deployed in Iraq from September 2006 to January 2008. “Everyone [on the site] acknowledges how hard it is being without their husbands, but I don’t feel comfortable spilling my heart to women who say everything is great as long as we live day by day. Sure, that is true, but what about my constant nightmares, or my going through the day acting out my reaction to the ‘knock on the door’? What support group helps with thoughts like that?”

“I knew I had to talk to a professional when I started resenting my husband,” said Jennifer Travis, a military spouse in McComb, Mississippi, regarding her feelings about her spouse when he returned from his deployment. Her husband, Kyle, a National Guardsman was deployed in Iraq from September 2004 until January 2006. “I was given free sessions to go talk to someone, but he kept telling me I possibly suffered from secondary stress and should focus on my husband being home and just be happy.”

According to Tom Berger, a senior analyst for veterans benefits and mental health issues for the Vietnam Veterans of America, current research shows that spouses, partners and children suffer from “secondary PTSD,” not post-traumatic stress. Secondary PTSD is the replication or the mirroring of some of the behaviors of an individual who has PTSD, due to close contact with a trauma survivor. It is the stress associated with trying to help a loved one who is suffering.

Yet many spouses say PTSD in spouses should be recognized as a serious primary ailment, not a secondary “condition.” Spouses may not otherwise obtain the help they need in order to carry out their duties of supporting their soldier and maintaining a stable, lasting family unit.

• Susan Oliver Nelson is a writer living in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She is an Army spouse.

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