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Written by: Naomi Williamson, BS and Kayla Reed-Fitzke, PhD, LMFT

You may be familiar with the challenges military spouses face when it comes to seeking stable employment, but did you know how this may be impacting their mental health?

Spouses who report being unemployed are more likely (in some instances more than twice as likely) to screen positive for symptoms of major depressive disorder than their full-time employed counterparts (Donohoe et al., 2018; Lara-Cinisomo & Neuhausen, 2020). Those who are underemployed are also more likely to experience depressive symptoms (Donohoe et al., 2018). The connection between employment and mental health may be compounded by education levels – spouses with less education are similarly more likely to report more depressive symptoms than those with higher educational attainment (Donohoe et al., 2018). One potential link is stress.

Although there are many benefits from being in a military family, the unique experiences that military spouses face can create stress. Whether this involves relocation for assignments, navigating deployment, spouses being in dangerous combat situations, and/or balancing home and family life in the absence of one’s partner, frequent life transitions can impact their day-to-day life (Drummet et. al, 2003). Military related stress may work in tandem with family life stress. Military spouses who report higher levels of recent life stressors, in combination with military stressors (e.g., spousal injury while on deployment), report the highest levels of unemployment and low educational attainment compared to those with fewer combined stressors (Sullivan et al., 2021). Barriers to employment, such as deployment status, can further contribute to this stress and prevent spouses from finding a good work-life balance (e.g., Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2012).

When the flow of employment is disrupted so often, it can be difficult to feel a sense of control over one’s employment trajectory. Some spouses experience stress about what an employer without context may think when they apply for a new job because they have resume gaps and job changes due to relocation (DaLomba et. al, 2021). Stress from a lack of agency and uncertainty can deteriorate one’s mental health (Pearlin, 1989). Although those working with military spouses in support of their educational and employment goals may not be discussing mental health, providing resources related to spouse employment may help alleviate stressors that can impact mental health.

Social support has been found to buffer against negative effects of unemployment on mental health (Milner et al., 2016). Accessible programs that provide this kind of support in addition to employment assistance may work to tackle employment challenges while simultaneously adding to the quality of life for military spouses.

A few example resources include:

  • Military OneSource is a good starting point when you aren’t sure what the best resource might be. In particular, the resources for improving relational health and wellness may be helpful options.
  • Scholarship programs such as the My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) Scholarship can help spouses pursue additional trainings, licensures, or certifications for work or seek higher education to increase work opportunities.
  • MySECO is a great option for those looking to explore resources that may help them think about their educational and employment options.
  • Through the SECO Career Center, spouses can access free personalized career coaching to help navigate their career challenges.
  • Federal hiring options for military spouses provide a pathway for spouses to find rewarding careers in the Federal civilian workforce.

Being aware of the ramifications of unemployment and underemployment is critical for providers working in support of military spouses’ educational and employment goals. Broadening your resource toolkit to include supports and programs that go beyond employment can bolster your ability to provide more holistic services.


DaLomba, E., Greer, M. J., Cruz, E., Harris, A., King, C., Laurel, L., McCuaig, T., & Wilder, R. (2021). The experiences of active duty military spouses with advanced degrees in maintaining and advancing their careers. Work: Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation68(2), 387–398.

Donoho, C. J., LeardMann, C., O’Malley, C. A., Walter, K. H., Riviere, L. A., Curry, J. F., & Adler, A. B. (2018). Depression among military spouses: Demographic, military, and service member psychological health risk factors. Depression and Anxiety, 35(12), 1137-1144.

Drummet, A. R., Coleman, M., & Cable, S. (2003). Military families under stress: Implications for family life education. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies52(3), 279–287.

Lara-Cinisomo S., Chandra A., Burns R. M., Jaycox L. H., Tanielian T., Ruder T., Han B. (2012). A mixed-method approach to understanding the experiences of non-deployed military caregivers. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 16, 374–384.

Lara-Cinisomo, S., Han, B., & Neuhausen, R. (2020). Exploring the role of depressive symptoms, service members, and spousal demographic characteristics on military spousal employment. Armed Forces & Society, 46(3), 397-423.

Milner A., Krnjacki L., Butterworth P., & LaMontagne A. D. (2016). The role of social support in protecting mental health when employed and unemployed: A longitudinal fixed-effects analysis using 12 annual waves of the HILDA cohort. Social Science & Medicine, 153, 20–26.

Pearlin, L. I. (1989). The sociological study of stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 30, 241-256.

Sullivan, K. S., Park, Y., & Riviere, L. A. (2021). Military and nonmilitary stressors associated with mental health outcomes among female military spouses. Family Relations, 71(1), 371-388.

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