Feb. 27, 2018

Veterans’ Families

A look into the health and well-being of families of Canadian Veterans with mental health problems

For Veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the transition to civilian life can be complicated by the presence of mental health problems. While many Veterans are supported by spouses and families, coping and adapting to new realities affects all members of the Veteran’s family. Understanding this complex process, and the various impacts of mental health problems on military families, is essential to supporting CAF Veterans.

Dr. Kelly Schwartz collaborated with a team of researchers and 27 families from across Canada to better understand the mental health and well-being of families of CAF Veterans with mental health problems. The study aimed to identify the families’ strengths, as well as common challenges they face. The team was also interested in the types of supports these families access, and whether or not they believe they are working for them.

Facing Challenges

The need to care for the Veteran was a central aspect of the family experience, altering the way the family unit had previously functioned. Spouses often assumed full responsibility for family matters, in addition to providing care to their partner. In some cases, children were also included in some of these responsibilities, taking on roles beyond what would normally be expected of them at different ages.

Emotional stress, financial concerns, and relationship tensions were commonly discussed as impacts of the mental health problems. Spouses also expressed feelings of burn out, and their own health declining as a result of their additional responsibility. Some children in these families also experienced emotional and behavioural challenges as a result of these changes.

Finding Support

In the wake of these challenges, the families showed a number of strategies which allowed them to cope and adapt. The family members reported maintaining their perspective on the cause of the mental health problem(s), keeping up their own self-care, and seeking out both informal and formal supports to assist them. The participants also felt that family and friends with their own military connections were particularly important, as they increased the level of support they provided to them during difficult times.

The families also accessed resources from military-centric organizations, including Veterans Affairs Canada. Overall, the family members found these programs to be helpful, however, some reported different issues affecting their ability to use these services. Location, administrative delays, eligibility requirements, and navigating the service’s systems could impact their access. The participants described a need for more family-centered practice to help improve the accessibility and relevance of these programs.

Improving Interventions

Families of Veterans preferred holistic interventions that address the various impacts resulting from the Veteran’s mental health problems. Helping these families find and access relevant supports, and to address the current gaps and fragmented approach were also seen as essential.

By recognizing the role of the whole family in supporting Veterans with mental health problems, programs and policies might better meet the needs of these families. A collaborative approach, combining and working together across both informal and formal supports, was suggested to help maximize the strengths of these families and address areas of concern.