Heidi Cramm, Deborah Norris, Linna Tam-Seto, Maya Eichler, and Kimberley Smith-Evans

Since the 1990s, the nature, frequency, and intensity of military operations have shifted, and these shifts have, in turn, had an impact on the families of Canada’s military personnel. Operational tempo has increased and has been almost continuous, and the roles of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel1 have changed from “peacekeepers to peacemakers to warriors.” In 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman, National Defence and Canadian Forces released its seminal report on military family health and well-being, On the Homefront: Assessing the Well-being of Canada’s Military Families in the New Millennium. This report brought into view the contexts, meanings, and consequences associated with recent changes in CAF military operations for members, Veterans, and families.

The Ombudsman’s report noted that mobility, separation, and risk have an impact on most serving military members and their families for much of their military careers.2 Canadian military families relocate three to four times more often than their civilian counterparts, with little input as to where, when, or for how long, disrupting continuity of access to health care services. Frequent relocations also affect children’s participation in school, academic progress, and access to educational accommodations for those with identified disabilities or learning exceptionalities.3 Relocations also disrupt non-military family members’ employment opportunities and the family’s capacity to care for vulnerable family members such as aging parents. Protracted separations from family as a result of training or deployment are not uncommon, and the risk that military personnel face during intensive training and deployment speak to the possibility of permanent injury, illness, or death.4 Although Canadian military families value and take pride in their family member’s military service, mobility and separation, along with the “relentless upheaval of military life,”5 can be highly disruptive to families. Civilian family members interviewed for the report shared their concern that their children were “paying a price for their parent’s service to the nation.”6

“…mobility, separation, and risk have an impact on most serving military members and their families for much of their military careers.”

Although Canadian military family research has been ongoing for approximately 25 years, efforts to develop this body of research were, until recently, hampered by the lack of funding for civilian research and the infrastructure to support collaboration. This has recently changed via the networks established through the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. At present, research involving present-day military families focuses overwhelmingly on the US experience. In recent years, this literature has paid greater attention to understanding how military life affects families and how resilience can be enhanced within military families.7 Resilience is defined as “positive adaptation, or the ability to maintain or regain mental health, despite experiencing adversity.”8

“In recent years,

[military family research] has paid greater attention to understanding how military life affects families and how resilience can be enhanced within military families.”

On the whole, the research examining military families has tended to take a risk or problem perspective.9 Very little research has explored the factors, or combination of factors, that support successful and ongoing resilience within military family life.10 Little is known about the mechanisms that foster resilience. Instead, emphasis has been placed on the effects of deployment across mental health, social, academic, and behavioural domains.11–14 For example, the mental health of both the deployed and the at-home parent can affect children at different times. The Children on the Homefront study in the United States, which explored the impact of military operations on children’s well-being, described how the mental health of the non-deployed parent had a significant impact on the number of emotional, social, and academic challenges children experience both during deployment and during the reintegration of the deployed parent.15 A recent report that reviewed the Canadian and international research on the impact of operational stress injury (OSI) on family health and well-being16 suggested that it has a negative impact on family dynamics and the health and well-being of family members. Furthermore, it appears that family members experience more emotional, psychological, behavioural, social, and academic problems and are also more vulnerable to experiences of neglect or abuse than other families.17

“…the mental health of both the deployed and the at-home parent can affect children at different times.”

The extent to which these research findings resonate with the Canadian experience is unclear. Canadian military families, especially those who are not actively serving, express “concern that relatively little is known on the subject from a Canadian context.”18 Although many of the findings may be generalizable to Canada, critical differences require more extensive and intensive knowledge of the unique needs of Canadian military children, spouses, and families.19 For instance, in Canada, unlike in the United States, military families are dependent on the civilian health care system and need to repeatedly navigate access to a family doctor as well as any required specialists, often across provincial jurisdictions in which systems and eligibility for services may differ. Rather than enjoying continuity of care, members of military families find themselves on new wait lists with each move, with limited ability to engage in routine health maintenance with a regular health provider. Many Canadian military families travel back to their physician from their previous posting because they have been unsuccessful in securing one in their current residence. If members of the family have medical needs or disabilities, navigating new health care systems can be onerous and frustrating, with eligibility and reimbursement policies causing considerable stress. This can be complicated if civilian health care providers have “limited understanding of the particularities of military life, which can also impact care quality and continuity.”20

The challenges military families face in navigating the health system can be echoed in the school systems. Twenty years ago, 80% of CAF families lived on base and attended a Department of National Defence school there. Not only does that school system no longer exist, 85% of CAF families now live off base and attend community schools21 in which civilian personnel have little awareness of military life stressors and their impact on spouses and children. Moreover, unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, Canada has no federal government department that provides financial resources to provincial school districts to tailor programming for children in military families transitioning into their schools, experiencing parental deployment, or living with a parent with an OSI.22, 23 If a student has a disability and requires educational accommodations in school, the assessment and resource allotment process begins anew with each school transition, which creates significant stressors for families.24

“…it is critical that unique health issues and needs be carefully defined and understood in a Canadian context.”

Although programming and services have been developed in Canada to target families, including crisis support, peer support, psychoeducation, and counselling services through organizations such as the Military Family Resource Centres (MFRCs), offerings vary by location and centre. Canada has also demonstrated leadership in developing family-centred programs and services such as “The Mind’s the Matter” webinar series for adolescents.25 The extent to which most of these programs and services have been based on evidence or rigorously evaluated for efficacy is unclear, however.

To ensure that the spouses and partners of military members and the almost 64,100 Canadian children growing up in military families enjoy the same levels of health as their civilian counterparts, it is critical that unique health issues and needs be carefully defined and understood in a Canadian context. Although clarifying these needs is critical, research must also explore the knowledge and skills that educators, health care practitioners, and community partners require to effectively engage and support military families and ultimately create the foundation for evidence-informed interventions and programming.

 


Authors

Heidi Cramm, School of Rehabilitation Therapy, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON

Deborah Norris, Department of Family Studies and Gerontology, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS

Linna Tam-Seto, School of Rehabilitation Therapy, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON

Maya Eichler, Department of Political and Canadian Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS

Kimberley Smith-Evans, Department of Family Studies and Gerontology, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS

 

This article can be downloaded in PDF format here.

This article is an excerpt from “Making Military Families in Canada a Research Priority,” which includes a discussion about future research priorities. The original article, published online in the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health in November 2015 (Volume 1 No. 2), can be accessed on the journal’s website.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces. On the Homefront: Assessing the Well-being of Canada’s Military Families in the New Millennium. Ottawa: Office of the Ombudsman, National Defence and Canadian Forces, 2013.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bradshaw CP, Sudhinaraset M, Mmari K, et al. “School Transitions Among Military Adolescents: A Qualitative Study of Stress and Coping.” School Psych Rev. 2010;39(1):84–105.
  4. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Saltzman WR, Lester P, Beardslee WR, et al. “Mechanisms of Risk and Resilience in Military Families: Theoretical and Empirical Basis of a Family-Focused Resilience Enhancement Program.” Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2011;14(3):213–30.
  8. Herrman H, Stewart DE, Diaz-Granados N, et al. “What Is Resilience?” Can J Psychiatry. 2011;56(5):258–65. Medline: 21586191
  9. Easterbrooks MA, Ginsburg K, Lerner RM. “Resilience Among Military Youth.” Future Child. 2013;23(2):99–120. Medline: 25518694
  10. Palmer C. “A Theory of Risk and Resilience Factors in Military Families.” Mil Psychol. 2008;20(3):205–17.
  11. Aronson KR, Perkins DF. “Challenges Faced by Military Families: Perceptions of United States Marine Corps School Liaisons.” J Child Fam Stud. 2013;22(4):516–25.
  12. Cederbaum JA, Gilreath TD, Benbenishty R, et al. “Well-Being and Suicidal Ideation of Secondary School Students from Military Families.” J Adolesc Health. 2014;54(6):672–7. Medline: 24257031
  13. Cozza SJ. “Children of Military Service Members: Raising National Awareness of the Family Health Consequences of Combat Deployment.” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165(11):1044–6. Medline: 21727261
  14. Chandra A, Lara-Cinisomo S, Jaycox LH, et al. “Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children from Military Families.” Pediatrics. 2010;125(1):16–25. Medline: 19969612
  15. Ibid.
  16. Norris D, Cramm H, Eichler M, Tam-Seto L, Smith-Evans K. “Operational Stress Injury: The Impact on Family Mental Health and Well-being. A Report to Veterans Affairs Canada.” 2015.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces.
  19. Dursun S, Sudom K. “Impacts of Military Life on Families: Results from the Perstempo Survey of Canadian Forces Spouses.” Ottawa: Defence R&D Canada, 2009.
  20. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces.
  21. Military Family Support Services. Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services; n.d. [cited 2015 Sep 10]. “Debunking Myths: The Canadian Forces Family Lifestyle.”
  22. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces.
  23. National Military Family Association. Department of Defense Support to Civilian Schools Educating Military Children. Alexandria (VA): The Association, 2006.
  24. Ombudsman Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces.
  25. Military Family Support Services. Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services; n.d. [cited 2015 Sep 10]. “The Mind’s the Matter: Understanding a Family Member’s OSI.”