The wife of the senior enlisted adviser to the U.S. Space Force, who is also a psychiatric nurse, said young military spouses can sometimes be overwhelmed when they leave home, family, friends — and perhaps even their own career aspirations — behind.
In some cases, that displacement can have an effect on their mental health, said Rachel Rush, wife of Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger Towberman.
Speaking during a recent senior leader town hall, Rush said her experience as a psych nurse has typically been within an inpatient setting, “which is where people go in their moment of intensive crisis.” Often, they are involuntarily committed for care in the facility for about 72 hours because they’re a danger to themselves or others, she said.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of spouses come through my unit,” she said. “I tried to focus on and analyze the causes that led them there, because it’s important for us as key spouses and senior spouses to be aware of those things, so we can help.”
Towberman, other senior leaders of the Air Force and Space Force, and their spouses talked about the challenges and stressors facing Department of the Air Force families — and what’s being done to increase their resilience — during a town hall at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space, Cyber conference Sept. 22.
Because of her professional experience in Colorado, working at facilities where military family members have sought treatment, Towberman said he asked his wife to talk about “some of the things our spouses and loved ones are going through that we don’t always see.”
Rush, who said she is passionate about mental health, now works with firefighters but she is intimately familiar with the severe mental health issues that can overwhelm military spouses.
Those she’s seen in a psychiatric setting are generally young, ages 18 to 23.
“They’ve been displaced from what they know,” she said. “While being a spouse is a beautiful thing, and it means a lot to us, it also is kind of bittersweet. You leave everything you know behind. You leave your family, your friends, the restaurants you love. You come to this new life.”
But there’s another part of this displacement, she noted.
“You’re displaced from your dreams and your vision,” Rush said. “While it’s possible to continue with education and keep your career, it’s definitely more difficult. I can say that as a spouse who has worked very hard to keep hers.”
She advises service members to embrace their loved ones, help them through the process, to do everything possible to ensure they are not isolated.
“When you go out with your friends, take [your spouse] with you,” she said. “And do your best to try to let them hold on to those dreams, hold on to what they had planned before they met you and made that life-altering decision.”
Rush, herself a veteran, is an example of what that kind of a relationship means. When she left the military, she wanted to go to nursing school. Doing that meant that she and her husband had to live apart for a year. “I was able to fulfill that part of my life that meant a lot to me,” she said.
A second medical issue facing military spouses — and perhaps even their husbands — is postpartum depression, which Rush said is on the rise.
“Obviously we’ve heard of the baby blues, but there’s something a little bit more intense that can happen to a new mother. It can affect fathers, too. It’s a hormone, physical situation, but it plays in with environment, so a father can actually suffer from postpartum as well. …. The intensity can range from depression to mania, to suicidal thoughts.”
Rush said she has taken care of some women who were so affected that they developed homicidal tendencies toward their children, although she didn’t specify whether those included military spouses.
She urges the spouses of those having babies to pay careful attention to these patterns. “If there’s something awry, treatment needs to be sought,” she said.
“I’m very passionate about these things and I want everyone to work together to keep us as healthy as possible and keep us as safe as possible,” said Rush.
She acknowledged that she, herself, suffers from anxiety, and emphasized the importance of recognizing that these issues can affect every facet of a person’s life. They can be benign or very severe, she said.
During the town hall, Sharene Brown, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., announced an effort called “Five to Thrive,” focusing on the top five quality of life issues for families, which include health care and mental health, housing, education, child care and spouse employment.
The effort is to enhance the actions and communications plans in place, “so we can make sure our families are doing well,” she said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.