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Staff Perspective: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Military

Staff Perspective: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Military

Providing therapy to military-connected clients with PTSD during the pandemic has raised my awareness about the intersection between trauma symptoms, COVID-19-related anxiety and distress, and military values that can help individuals cope with the outbreak like having good situational awareness, taking individual responsibility, applying discipline, and striving for the larger mission to maintain safety and protect others. My clinical work has also led me to think more about how the pandemic is impacting military members and their families overall. Although research has looked at the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being on individuals in the US and other countries, there has been less focus on how it may uniquely be affecting the military. According to Guo et al (2020), when looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the military across the world including Russia, US, France, and India:

“Military personnel have been a major task force in combating COVID-19. Given that military personnel are already at risk for mental health problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, PTSD) during non-pandemic times, the increased workload and stress that come with COVID-19 may increase the likelihood of psychological distress.”

Guo et al (2020) report that in a study of 642 individuals, those working at military hospitals reported rates of anxiety at 29% and depression at 36%. Concerns about themselves or loved ones being infected by COVID-19 were identified as risk factors. In order to address COVID-19-related distress in the military globally, the authors argue that early intervention is warranted, underscoring that this population, which serves others, needs access to mental health services themselves.

Relatedly, in the article, Survey Shows Widening Cracks in Service Member Mental Health and Benefits During COVID, Scott Maucione (2020) summarizes the results of a survey conducted by Blue Star Families that examined the toll of the pandemic on the US military and veterans. The survey highlighted gaps in support or services and the particular hardship on women and minorities. Based on those who responded to the survey:

  • 23% of military and veteran families experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety without a preexisting mental health disorder
  • 25% of military families indicated that their mental health needs are not being met
  • 20% of essential service members including medical providers reported they couldn’t access childcare, and over 70% of female service members had to change their childcare plans
  • About 17% of military spouses reported losing their jobs, suggesting a worsening of the unemployment rate for this group (note that military spouses already face a 24% unemployment rate)
  • Compared to active duty white families, 40% of Black and 33% of Latinx active duty families reported relying on savings or credit cards during the pandemic
  • African American and Hispanic military families were less likely to hear about available support services and resources

The Department of Defense has implemented some measures to help Service members during the pandemic; for example, military personnel can carry over up to 120 days of leave until 2023. In addition, the Defense Health Agency and TRICARE issued changes to encourage and expand telehealth services.

Looking ahead, the Blue Star Families’ Data Analysis Working Group provided several thoughtful actions for consideration in the white paper, COVID-19 Military Support Initiative (https://covid19militarysupport.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CMSI-White-Paper.pdf). These include the following recommendations, which are taken verbatim from the report:

  • Military and civilian leaders should identify and help set the conditions for safe and effective use of flexible, non-traditional work and child care arrangements until the threat of the virus dissipates; these adaptations should be tailored to local public health conditions.
  • Families should use existing resources to holistically assess their financial situation in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Installation commanders, local leaders, and resource providers should use this experience as an opportunity to preserve and continue to build common understanding across the civil-military divide.
  • Military and civilian leaders should conduct a comprehensive After-Action Review at the installation and national level, including focus groups and surveys of Service members and their families, to identify best practices for the future. It should include an expansive review of child care, the impact of school closures on family readiness, Family Care Plans, defining “Mission Essential” personnel, clarifying the second-order effects on training and fiscal spend-down requirements, and use of National Guard personnel.
  • Military and civilian leaders should ensure equitable, virtual access to high-quality services such as telehealth and schooling.
  • Military leaders should reassure Service members and their families early and often that they will not be held personally or financially accountable for challenges caused by an unforeseen national emergency.

The white paper flagged that military families need support and policy initiatives in advance of the next emergency to address child care access, build financial resilience, and establish community partnerships and local resources. These preemptive efforts will help mitigate stressors before the next crisis arrives and enable the military to adapt to a more virtual world.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Dr. Paula Domenici, Ph.D., is the Director of Civilian Training Programs at the Cetner for Deployment Psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.

References

Guo et al (19 June 2020) https://academic.oup.com/milmed/article/185/9-10/e1401/5859595

Scott Maucione (22 October 2020) https://federalnewsnetwork.com/defense-main/2020/10/survey-shows-widening-cracks-in-service-member-mental-health-and-benefits-issues-during-covid/

COVID-19 Military Support Initiative (presented by Booz/Allen/Hamilton) The Impact of COVID-19 on the Military and Veterans: What We Learned, and What We Can Do https://covid19militarysupport.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CMSI-White-Paper.pdf

Staff Perspective: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Military | Center for Deployment Psychology

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