MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And now to issues of war and mental health. Scientists have found high levels of mental health problems among troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they're studying the families of those fighters.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports on a new study of Army wives.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The report in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that Army wives report a lot of stress when their husbands are sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. And the longer the deployment, the more likely the wife is to experience depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and other mental health problems.
That deployment creates stress shouldn't come as a surprise. Still, the study is welcome news for Army wives like Keli Lowman of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Ms. KELI LOWMAN: There is no surprise. But it seems to be surprising to the wives themselves, especially newly married spouses or spouses that have not experienced a deployment before. You will have a sense of worry like you've never felt before.
SHAPIRO: There's more worry when troops face second, third, fourth deployments and more. Over just three years, Keli Lowman's husband, James, was sent to Afghanistan twice and then to Iraq.
Ms. LOWMAN: It's a continuing stress. We are a constant ready force. So you may exchange the distress of he's leaving, for the stress of he's gone; to the excitement that he's coming home, to the stress of he's going to leave again in 12 months.
SHAPIRO: And after her husband, a helicopter pilot, was severely injured, there's been even more stress. She followed him to hospitals from the East Coast to the West, leaving their young daughter with friends and family. There was stress as James fought for his life, and still today as he deals with traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
Keli Lowman sought help from her Army doctor at Fort Bragg.
Ms. LOWMAN: I actually just walked into the clinic in tears one day, and I just explained that I was having anxiety, I was having panic attacks. And I was handed three prescriptions: One for something to sleep, something for anxiety, something for depression. But there was no support. It was just, take these, you'll feel better.
SHAPIRO: Only later did she get free counseling from a sympathetic, local therapist, then support from other Army wives and advice on how to cope from the Wounded Warrior Project, a group that now employs Lowman to seek out other troubled Army wives.
Alyssa Mansfield, at RTI International, is the co-author of the study that showed widespread mental health problems among wives whose husbands are sent to war.
Dr. ALYSSA MANSFIELD (RTI International): What we found was that the wives of soldiers who were deployed were more likely to have mental health diagnoses than wives of soldiers who were not deployed. And not only was it deployment versus non-deployment, but also the length of deployment that turned out to be a factor.
SHAPIRO: Mansfield studied the records of 250,000 Army wives who went to Army health clinics. But that means she wasn't able to measure women who had the same problems but didn't go see a doctor.
Ms. MANSFIELD: We already know that there's a stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems in military personnel, that the wives may feel that way as well. For that reason, we actually believe that our estimates are conservative, that the problems might actually be greater than what we found in this study.
SHAPIRO: Army wife Keli Lowman agrees there's a lot of stigma that keeps Army wives from getting care.
Ms. LOWMAN: You're viewed as weaker or a complainer by other wives because everybody is in the same situation. All of our husbands are gone. When you hear one that is exceptionally loud about complaining of her two children or, you know, just things are so awful for her, you get very aggravated because you're in the same situation. But everybody deals with the situations differently.
SHAPIRO: The study of Army wives looked at medical records up to 2006. Since then, the Army has added dozens of therapists and even made counseling available by telephone. To reduce stigma, sometimes there's no record kept of who gets therapy. Free daycare is now available for stressed-out mothers whose husbands are at war. And the military has reduced the length of those deployments.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.