Spouses of reserve soldiers suffer from depression

People gather and light candles to remember the Israeli victims of the October 7 massacre at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, October 12, 2023. (photo credit: Dor Pazuelo/Flash90)


A large number of Israelis at home while their spouses are on reserve duty in the Gaza war are suffering from anxiety, guilt, depression, and traumatic symptoms.

Two-thirds of Israelis whose partners are on IDF reserve duty are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from depression, parental burnout, and anxiety than those whose spouses have not been called up, according to new research at the University of Haifa. Two-thirds are reportedly suffering from medium-to-high levels of depression.

Symptoms of depression include sadness, difficulty experiencing joy, excessive guilt, excessive fatigue, lack of motivation, and a sense of meaninglessness.

About two-fifths of these Israelis, with or without children, who are at home while their spouse is on reserve duty – hundreds of thousands of reservists have been called up since the October 7 Hamas massacre – report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to approximately 30% of those couples who are not currently on reserve duty. About 600 people were questioned for the study, which is preliminary and has not yet been published.

PTSD following October 7

The prevalence of PTSD symptoms and anxiety is very high among all Israeli adults, particularly among those who have a partner on reserve duty. All this is to be expected.

Israeli soldiers walk past Israeli tanks near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel October 15, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Although Israel has a long history of crises – wars, military operations, and the COVID-11 pandemic – it is clear that the Gaza war has created a mental health crisis on a different scale.

The duration and intensity of the horrific traumatic events that Israelis have experienced will take years to process, said Prof. Noga Cohen of the university’s Faculty of Education who was one of the researchers leading the study.

Also on the team were doctoral student Mor Keleynikov, and Dr. Joy Bentov from the Department of Special Education, together with Dr. Dana Lassri of the School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and a clinical psychologist, and Dr. Reuma Gadassi-Polack, of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

Parenting and PTSD

The team sought to examine how parents are coping with their own and their children’s negative feelings triggered by the war, and how these two factors are related to parental psychological distress as well as to children’s behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Preliminary analyses based on 307 parents – 60 fathers and 247 mothers – showed that one-third of the parents reported post-traumatic stress symptoms that were above the clinical threshold of PTSD. However, the researchers noted that it is important to recognize that the war has not yet ended and the direct and indirect exposure to traumatic events is still ongoing, whereas PTSD that needs to be treated can be diagnosed only one month after the end of the traumatic event.

The researchers examined the differences between parents whose partners are at home vs. parents whose partner has been called up for reserve duty.

Clear differences were also found between the two groups in terms of anxiety, manifested in emotional symptoms such as fear of the future, and physical symptoms such as shaky hands or breathing difficulties. 38% of those whose partners are currently on reserve duty showed severe levels of anxiety and 22% reported on medium levels.

“Looking at the findings as a whole, a parent whose partner is currently on reserve duty reported 1.5 times more symptoms of parental burnout, depression, stress, and anxiety as compared to parents where both partners are at home.

They also differed in children-related variables; thus, they reported that their children are currently experiencing more symptoms of somatization – health difficulties that are not the result of a medical problem such as stomach aches or nausea without a medical explanation, as well as more behavioral problems among their children since the war started.

When the burden of childrearing falls on one parent only, it can be expected that they will report higher parental burnout. High stress and anxiety are also to be expected and are due, in part, to their worry about their partner.

As for depression, it is reasonable to assume that the loneliness these parents are experiencing may lead to a rise in symptoms of depression, in comparison to parents where both partners are at home,” Keleynikov explained.

The researchers conducted similar studies on parental coping during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They compared various aspects of these two extremely stressful life events and found significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress during the war, compared to the pandemic.

In the study, the participants were also asked to mention a negative event they had recently experienced. They were then asked to write a letter to themselves, helping themselves to reduce the negative emotion raised by this event. The researchers found that the more they tended to think repeatedly about the reasons and circumstances behind the event and the negative emotions it raised, the more they reported negative emotions.

Conversely, parents who showed a stronger tendency to rely on self-compassion – that is, acting kindly toward themselves, accepting their reactions without judgment, and recognizing that difficulty is part of the human experience – reported fewer negative emotions after describing the event.

Lassri suggests that self-compassion may foster psychological and behavioral flexibility that is vital in promoting successful adaptation to a significant stressful life event, such as war. Self-compassion allows parents a mindful, nonjudgmental acknowledgment of one’s distress and pain, while at the same time not overly identifying with their negative emotions. It also encourages an experience of shared humanity – that is, recognition that a person is not alone in her/his emotions.

Many parents who participated in the study reported a sense of guilt that they were still enjoying the little pleasures of life, that their children were safe, that they were complaining about their children while others had lost the most precious thing of all. For example, one mother wrote: “While I was hugging my daughter before she went to sleep, she said to me: ‘A hug from mom is the best, isn’t it?’ That made me think about all the children who aren’t getting a hug and all the parents who don’t get to hug them. I felt guilt and helplessness.”

This feeling of guilt may lead to negative emotions and symptoms of depression. The use of self-compassion – our ability to be aware of the suffering of others but also allow room for our own suffering, to care for ourselves, and to realize that negative feelings can get better; the ability to recognize that everyone is currently suffering, making mistakes, and dealing with some kind of difficulty – all this can help us as parents to cope with our difficulties, as well as with our children’s, the researchers concluded.