Survey shows widening cracks in service member mental health and benefits issues during COVID

A new survey paints a bleak picture of military life during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting how the effects of the disease widened existing cracks in needs and benefits coverage for service members.

Over the past six months, 20% of essential service members, like medical providers, were unable to access childcare. Military spousal employment worsened and family mental health needs went unmet.

The pandemic is taking a particularly hard toll on women and minorities in the military. Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and president of Blue Star Families, which conducted the survey, said the military is at risk of losing a generation of female leaders because of COVID-19.

More than 70% of women service members reported having to change their childcare plan over the last six months because of the pandemic.

“We can’t just leave it to each individual service member to figure child care out themselves,” Roth-Douquet told Federal News Network. “As you’re moving every one, two or three years, and dealing with the unpredictability of military lifestyle, no individual is ever going to be able to solve this for themselves consistently over time.”

Minority service members are experiencing more financial hardship during the pandemic.

A total of 40% of Black and 33% of Latinx active duty families reported relying on savings or credit cards during the coronavirus outbreak, compared to 29% of active duty white families.

“We also saw in some of our recent research that African American and Hispanic military families are less likely to be hearing about the support services and resources that are available for them,” Roth Douquet said. “That’s a real notice to us that it’s not enough for those resources to be out there, whether they’re government or local or nonprofit resources, we have to go to the last mile in doing that communication.”

Mental health also took a hit over the last six months.

According to the survey, 23% of military and veteran families who responded to the survey experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety without a preexisting mental health disorder.

A quarter of military families said their mental health needs are not being met.

For those married to service members, the unemployment issue became a larger problem. Military spouses were already facing a 24% unemployment rate before the pandemic. About 17% of spouses reported losing their jobs as a result of the economic fallout.

The Defense Department has made some efforts to help service members during the pandemic. For example, the Pentagon made it so service members can carry over up to 120 days of leave to 2023.

“On the medical front, the Defense Health Agency and TRICARE made several changes to expand and incentivize telehealth services,” Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan said Wednesday. “To ensure our beneficiaries receive necessary care, we extended licensed providers greater flexibility to provide health care services and other states that waive co-pays and cost shares for in network telehealth services.”

Despite the steps DoD has taken, Blue Star Families still has some recommendations to help service members.

In a white paper that was published along with the survey, Blue Star Families working groups suggested installation commanders should treat childcare providers as front-line employees and offer incentives for childcare workers to stay on staff.

The groups recommended DoD explore alternative schooling methods for children like “micropodding,” and that 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.

Other recommendations include an after action report to deal with future situations and working with community organizations to document and share “best practices” from partnerships built during the pandemic.

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