Psychology faculty Adam Brown and Kim Ferguson to study effects of deployment on military families’ lives

Research conducted since 2001 following the deployment of approximately three million Americans serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) shows that veterans of OEF/OIF are at high risk for combat-related mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. Less studied are the effects of deployment on military families, though it is known that military spouses are at elevated risk for a wide range of mental health issues, divorce rates have tripled in military families, and children of deployed parents are exhibiting emotional and behavioral issues at levels above the national average.

A new study to be conducted by faculty psychologists aims to examine whether families that know more about the events that took place in each other’s lives during deployment will exhibit better psychological and behavioral wellbeing. Based on findings from studies of non-military families, the researchers, Adam D. Brown, PhD and Kim T. Ferguson, PhD, say that although efforts are being made to address the psychological challenges facing military families, there exists a strong need to better understand the mechanisms that underlie resilience and vulnerability to mental health issues among families in which a parent was deployed to a warzone.

Brown and Ferguson predict that sharing memories, either in conversation or through expressive writing, will be associated with lower levels of psychological and functional difficulties.

Brown says that an often-discussed but poorly understood factor that may be contributing to relationship difficulties in military families is the challenge returning soldiers face as they share, or consider sharing, their deployment experiences with their families. The role of sharing memories among family members and the formation of collective memories of the stressful experience have yet to be investigated or incorporated into treatments.

While therapy with returning soldiers often involves the family, and interventions have been developed to foster effective communication within the family, Brown notes that these processes do not focus on the shared memories of deployment across a family that arise as a result of communication within the family. Because of the unreliability and malleability of human memory, people will remember some of the information arising in a conversation, but not all of it.

Despite empirically supported benefits of family remembering and the creation of shared memories, attempts to help soldiers and their families readjust have not yet systematically studied how military families remember—or avoid remembering—the topic of deployment and the extent to which resultant individual and collective memories affect individual (e.g., mental health issues) and family outcomes (e.g., divorce).

Past studies of intergenerational memories conducted with non-military families indicate that the more adolescent children can report both positive and negative events from their parents’ lives, the less likely they are to demonstrate psychological and behavioral problems. Substantial literature on the topic supports the general claim that the healthier and more complete a family’s narrative of the past, the more grounded the identity and the healthier the individual and the group.

The study, on which Brown and Ferguson will embark beginning this month, will run through June 2015 and will be conducted in their respective laboratories on the Sarah Lawrence campus. Undergraduate students of the two faculty members will participate in the research.

The findings will serve as a basis for the development of a larger scale research project and will be reported in professional journals, at professional meetings, to veteran organizations and community groups, and to academic medical centers and universities.

It is the researchers’ hopes to support the hypothesis that memories generated through family conversations, and the formation of family narratives, serve as the glue that binds families together. Such findings will shed light on novel mechanisms that promote a sustainable transition from deployment to civilian life, and offer cost-effective strategies that can help the entire military family.