Commentary

Filling the care gap for spouses of service members struggling with mental health issues

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among active duty military members. The military for many years had suicide rates that were below the national average. Today, those rates are at or above that average.

Being a spouse of a member who struggles with mental health issues is the hardest thing I have walked through. There are days where I feel completely powerless, completely alone, and completely at the mercy of what if. These words are painful to type, but are absolutely true.

Thankfully, there are organizations and people are stepping up to fill in the care gap. The Air Force is looking at supporting spouses directly, but this is still in the early days. Military One Source and the Marriage and Family Life Counseling Program are options, but these programs are limited in both time and scope. Tricare offers counseling for dependents, not members.

Drs. David and Katherine Tharp are ones who have stepped up to offer care in this lacking arena. David Tharp is an Air Force Reserve psychologist and a lieutenant colonel at the Air Force Academy. Katherine Tharp is an active-duty Air Force psychiatrist and captain at Nellis Air Force Base. David suffered a compromised spinal cord after a deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and came home changed, like many. He has walked through trauma and he understands the perspective of how pain can be overwhelming and entirely debilitating. He was also frustrated by the mental health programs after deployment, including being sent to the VA for care. His first-hand experiences with his spouse, who was on the front line of supporting him through the mental and physical challenges, led them to found an organization that fills the care gap.

Here is a list of resources I have found that offer potential, not only for the member, but importantly for spouses, as well. I understand all too well that sometimes it is not time to reach out, so I have also included a list of books that have helped me grow and learn through this process until I was ready to speak out. These resources are by no means exhaustive. (Please note that I am not being paid for this work at all. These organizations are ones that I am recommending because of my personal experience or knowledge of them and their applicableness in this fight. I personally believe that we need all hands on deck and that this will take everyone to solve.)

Books

“Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk: This book offers a description of trauma by a leading expert and research driven ways to help sufferers. Some of the research-backed treatment is unfortunately not covered by the military; however, van der Kolk describes activities such as martial arts, acting, or yoga that help in stabilizing and integrating the whole body for recovery.

Anything by Dr. Brene Brown: “The Gifts of Perfection," “Daring Greatly,” “Braving the Wilderness,” and “Rising Strong.” All of these focus on Dr. Brown’s research in whole-hearted living. My personal favorite is “Rising Strong,” but if you have not read any of her books, I recommend beginning with “Daring Greatly.”

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. This book is one that is recommended by the pilot in my previous op-ed. He said it has been life changing.

Online free courses

The Science of Well Being taught by Dr. Lauri Santos of Yale University. This is a free course offered through Coursera. Santos is a great teacher and she openly speaks of walking through this journey with the participants.

Organizations

Project Healing Heroes is the organization started by the Tharps. This organization seeks to connect active duty, veterans, and first responders with each other to provide community and healing through that community. There is also a place for spouses!

Equine Therapy has proved to be beneficial for people experiencing trauma. Many appreciate being around horses as it helps to calm and reduce stress. Equine therapy may be found in many parts of the country.

Team Red White and Blue is a national organization. They help connect veterans and service members with other military affiliated individuals for social and physical activity. They have over 200 chapters across the country.

Wounded Warrior Project helps active duty members. They have many programs to support the military community and their families, including a Family Support Program specifically for families.

Integrating yourself into a religious organization or service can help in this fight. If you are not particularly religious, connecting with nature or volunteering may also help. I believe that reminding ourselves that we are a part of a bigger story is powerful and healing.

Some hospices offer free grief counseling if grief is a factor. Additionally, local colleges may have programs for the community to connect with students training to be therapists. I have personally had success with both.

Or, simply email me your story. I would be honored to read it.

When the days are hard, when you do not understand, when you think you cannot carry this burden another day, please know you are not the only one. I feel that, too. There are days when I just simply do not have the patience, the disappointment shows on my face no matter how hard I try to hide it, and when my heart breaks to feel that all progress has been lost. As spouses, we carry a unique burden and that burden can lead to a weary soul.

Often, we cannot go it alone — we weren’t made to. The loneliness is difficult to bear. I know first- hand how gut wrenching this is. If you are a struggling member, if you are a spouse watching your member wife or husband struggle, if you are a parent trying to walk through this with your child, or a friend trying to be there, I am in those trenches, too.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, option 1.

Aleha Landry lives in Colorado with her husband and four children, and has spent the last decade as a stay-at-home mom. She has a passion for politics and policy, hates to cook (but cooks much due to aforementioned children), and loves to travel. She holds a bachelor’s of business administration from Colorado Christian University. You may reach her at aleha.landry@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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