Army life can be lonely at times, so what support is there for spouses feeling socially isolated? Jill Misson reports…
Summing up the highs and lows of life as an army spouse, Emma Moore says: “It’s been a rollercoaster of difficulties, challenges and adventures.”
She has made great friends on some postings but experienced terrible isolation on others: “In Northern Ireland, I was one of the very few new mums and there weren’t any baby groups so that was very lonely. In Germany, there was a shortage of housing close to camp so we had to live further away. With two young boys and my husband deployed to Iraq, it was difficult being so cut-off.”
The survey said
In 2018, a Royal British Legion survey of members of the armed forces community found 50 per cent had felt lonely or socially isolated after moving to a new area. “It made me feel awful so I questioned if this life was for me,” says Lucy May Percy-Bell, who welcomes more support to help partners integrate. She explains: “It’s intimidating going to coffee mornings alone for the first time and we need more activities for spouses, not just for children.” Admitting you are struggling isn’t easy but Lucy would encourage others to reach out: “My husband helped me to contact welfare for mental health support and they helped to get me some amazing counselling.”
In the 2020 report Living in Our Shoes, Andrew Selous MP noted the stigma of asking for help: “Many service families believe that they should cope on their own and be self-sufficient.” The report called for greater awareness of factors which increase loneliness and social isolation and for more support for families who are “especially vulnerable as a result of deployments, mental health concerns, additional needs or disabilities, postings to new areas, and dispersed living arrangements”.
Away from family
Annie Sleeman found out she was pregnant when her husband was on a six-month tour in West Africa. She says: “Our families were a three-hour drive away so I went alone to all of my appointments. My neighbours and colleagues were supportive but I only had two brief phone calls from my welfare officer.”
Parents of infants can connect online through the Defence Breastfeeding Network. Its founder Natasha Day says: “No matter where you are in the world these military families will be right there with you to celebrate the highs and support you through the lows of your personal journey.”
As part of the Armed Forces Families Strategy, the MOD is exploring how to establish more recognition of parent carers. AFF’s Health & Additional Needs Specialist, Karen Ross, says: “Being a carer for a child with additional needs or a disability often impacts on a parent’s confidence to socialise with others who may not understand their child’s behaviour or needs.” AFF has set up support groups in Sandhurst and Aldershot, and plans to restart one in Tidworth.
Going off patch
For some families with health needs it makes more sense not to move with every posting. Kirsty Crowther and her husband (main photo) live apart during the week. She says: “My daughter and I both have Marfan’s Syndrome and it can take a long time to get appointments at a new hospital. I don’t drive due to medical reasons so that made it harder when we were posted somewhere with poor public transport. We bought a house so that we had stability for me and our children and it means they are settled in education and we can make long-term friends.”
Settling in one location can be beneficial for some families but AFF’s Living in Wales survey reported that some spouses who had moved out of Service Family Accommodation into their own homes felt more isolated. One respondent told us: “Once we move off patch we are all but abandoned by welfare. The area is very rural so while my husband is away I usually go all day speaking to nobody but my children.”
Support at home
The charity Home-Start can offer support to army families who have at least one child under seven. Julie Teasdale says: “A co-ordinator will visit to talk about the issues affecting them and then consider which of our volunteers would be best suited.” The volunteer spends around three hours each week with the family, as Julie explains: “It’s having someone to accompany them to appointments, looking after children in waiting rooms, or just being there to listen.” One army spouse says: “I felt so lonely as I didn’t know anyone and my partner was away. I cried a lot but my volunteer never judged me. With her help I got some mental health support and I feel lots better.”
You can also talk to your unit welfare team. Col Leigh Drummond, Assistant Head Personal Services, explains: “Unit welfare teams provide an essential service in either resolving relatively simple issues or signposting soldiers and their families to the appropriate agency.
“The members of a welfare team operate within the Army Welfare Code of Confidentiality and can assist with stress, debt, compassionate leave, information about the local community or can provide a sympathetic ear to listen, especially if someone is feeling lonely. The Army Welfare Project is currently looking at how we can assist the welfare teams in the delivery of this critical function.”
In addition, the Army Welfare Service (AWS) offers professional services to soldiers and their families. AWS Personal Support can be contacted in confidence to discuss problems including bereavement and anxiety. Staff can signpost to appropriate agencies for specialist advice. AWS Community Support inspires families through play, youth and community work. Your local Community Development Worker can tell you more about activities where you live.
Thanks to funding from the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust, SSAFA is developing eLearning to teach staff and volunteers how to help anyone experiencing social isolation and loneliness. Community Connection Champions will create opportunities to bring people together, including book clubs, cookery classes and gaming sessions. Project officer Suzette Leach says: “With a focus on supporting all members of the diverse serving community, events will be held in both face-to-face and virtual format and at a variety of times including evenings and weekends.
“It’s fine to come alone and everyone will be welcomed.”
This new initiative is being piloted in parts of the UK and overseas.
Overseas postings can bring new challenges, from adjusting to a different language and culture to finding it hard to communicate with friends and family in another time zone. There may be a lack of childcare or your soldier could be away from home. AFF’s Manager Overseas, Esther Thomas, says there are ways to prepare: “Consider life skills such as learning to drive so you’re not so isolated; or learning basic language skills to break down social barriers; join local and virtual social networks and find out who to contact for welfare support if family life gets tough.”
Partners of Foreign & Commonwealth soldiers also experience difficulties getting used to a new lifestyle a long way from home. Marama Alliance UK runs projects for women in the Fijian community. Trustee Miriama Suraki says: “Ours is the loneliness of adapting to a different culture to fit in while trying to maintain the unique cultural identity of the country we left behind.”
Many army spouses are keen to work not just to earn money but for social contact. The Military Coworking Network (MCN) offers online support and has hubs where you can work or study and meet others. Carolyn Campbell-Baldwin from MCN says: “Disconnection results in feelings of social isolation and loneliness, which in turn, impacts our ability to perform, to be creative and productive.”
Working with others on voluntary projects can also alleviate loneliness. A collective called e50K is inviting members of the military community to enhance the place where they live. At Catterick Garrison, the volunteers have been building allotments. Catherine Clapham says: “The experience of being a military spouse can often be disempowering. With e50K, spouses will be part of a community making real, lasting and beneficial changes that they have helped to shape.”
Getting out there
Taking up a hobby may be your key to making friends. Emma from Catterick says: “During my first riding lesson I met another army wife and now we meet up most days for a dog walk and to visit the horses.”
Meanwhile, the Military Wives Choir has been a lifeline for Emma Moore, who says: “I enjoy singing, performing and chatting to ladies who understand everything!”
There’s bound to be a club or a class that appeals to you, whether it’s playing sport, learning a new skill, reading books or drinking wine. You’re not alone. Get involved and never be afraid to ask for help.