Intermittent separation: Exploring the psycho-social impact on dispersed military families

Osborne, Alison Kay (2020) Intermittent separation: Exploring the psycho-social impact on dispersed military families. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Background: The perceived role and identity of the military family is shifting alongside new policies and models from the Ministry of Defence, increasing flexibility of serving personnel and encouraging stability. Data from the last five years suggests that approximately 24% of military families are already living geographically dispersed from the serving member of their family, although it is unclear as to where these families reside. Separation is central to dispersed military family life, however, current evidence is limited to the effect of operational deployments on spouses and children. Due to the large number of military families estimated to be living dispersed, and lack of research focusing on how this affects family psychological and social well-being, this study aims to explore the psycho-social impact of intermittent separation on dispersed military families.

Design: A mixed methods, Explanatory Sequential Design was utilised with two phases and employed Pragmatism as the underpinning methodology. The purpose of the first phase was to provide an understanding on what is already known about dispersed military families and separation. Phase 1a involved a systematic narrative review to answer the question: what is the impact of separation on military families? Phase 1b reported geospatial analysis of publicly available data to determine if there was a suitable proxy variable for the geolocation of dispersed military families. Phase 2 provided primary research findings through semi-structured interviews with spouses, partners, and children of UK military personnel.

Phase 1a: The systematic narrative review critically evaluated existing literature on the impact of separation on military. Databases were searched for papers available between January 2001 and July 2018. Papers were excluded if: not written in the English language, were about relationship issues or problems, were about wounded injured or sick personnel, were about pregnancy or postpartum, were about veterans or transition, looked at interventions or the use/development of services, focussed on child or sibling deployment, or were about domestic violence or maltreatment. Eighteen papers were accepted for use in the systematic narrative review. Six main themes were generated through thematic analysis from the papers reviewed: Stress, Depression, Psychological Well-Being, Relationships, Support and Life Experiences.

Review findings indicated that military families’ experiences impact their psychological well-being during military-induced separations with specific increases in stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms. Communication and relationships were also affected, but social support can mitigate the psychological effects of separations. Higher levels of social support were significantly associated with better psychological health, fewer depressive symptoms, and lower levels of stress.

Phase 1b: Phase 1b explored existing publicly available data to determine if there was an appropriate proxy dataset for the geolocation of dispersed military families. Multiple datasets were examined measuring the locations of military personnel, Census data on the Armed Forces household reference person, and data on Service Child Pupil Premium (SPP). Geospatial analysis was carried out to visualise the data at the local authority level. A family estimate was created using SPP data and fertility estimates. In order to consider a proxy variable for dispersed military families, the SPP family estimate and data on the location of military personnel were considered. Data was isolated for local authority areas where there were no military personnel but there was an estimate of military families. This isolated dataset tentatively represented the geolocation of dispersed military families across England. However, there were too many caveats to the data to be a plausible proxy variable. Consequently, findings from Phase 1b argued that there is no publicly available dataset that can act as a suitable proxy for the geolocation of dispersed military families due to the number of limitations on the data.

Phase 2: As a result of the findings from Phase 1, Phase 2 sought to explore the psycho-social impact of intermittent separation on dispersed military families through primary research. Twenty-eight semi-structured interviews were carried out with civilian spouses, partners, and children of dispersed UK military personnel over the age of 16; to gain a greater understanding of their experiences. Five themes were generated through Framework Analysis: Identity, Loneliness, Well-Being, Familial Relationships and Accessing Support.
Interview findings indicated that dispersed military families experience a number of challenges as a result of separation. The perceived view and lack of understanding of dispersed military families in both civilian and military community was at the centre of participants’ experiences. Consequently, this affected how participants viewed themselves, suggesting fluctuation in identifying with the military and how they access support networks. Participants’ ability to cope with separation was critically linked to their outlook on the dispersal. A normalisation of the dispersal was reported by those with prior dispersal experience. An acceptance of their situation or a positive outlook helped to alleviate some of the negative consequences of separation along with appropriate support networks. Regardless, participants were clear that dispersal was challenging, and this was exacerbated by the intermittent nature of the separation.

Conclusions: By integrating the findings from Phase 1 and Phase 2, six overarching concepts were discussed in terms of existing theories and research: Military Identity, Loneliness, Stability and Dispersal, Psychological Well-Being, Resilience and Coping and Social Support. These concepts help begin to develop an understanding of the psychological and social impact of intermittent separation on dispersed military families.

Throughout the research, recommendations were generated to indicate what could be done to support dispersed military families. These include focussing on qualitative research methods to assess the impact of separation on military families; accurate recording of information on military families on MOD JPA system; greater inclusion of dispersed military families in military community; and greater access to information and support and raising awareness.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Military spouse, Armed Forces, Psychology, Identity, Psychological well-being
Subjects: C800 Psychology
L900 Others in Social studies
Department: Faculties > Health and Life Sciences > Nursing, Midwifery and Health
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 19 Jul 2021 07:51
Last Modified: 15 Jun 2022 08:01

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