These aims were researched using a number of standardised, scientifically validated measures of physical, mental and family health. In total, 1,332 partner participants—approximately half in the Timor-Leste group and half in a comparison group—provided questionnaire responses for analysis. This represents a response rate of about 37 per cent of all those approached to take part in the study; such a rate is favourable compared with the rates for other primary research involving serving personnel. The data collected from participants were analysed in relation to deployment to Timor-Leste only and in relation to total deployment experience.
The design of the study meant that it was not possible to determine the direction of the relationship between a particular factor and a measure of health. In interpreting the results, it is important to remember the cross-sectional nature of the research (where measurement is taken at one specific time) and that risk and protective factors can exacerbate or ameliorate effects associated with military life for members, partners and children.
It is also important to understand that recall of a particular experience can be affected by a participant’s mood at the time of completing the questionnaire. People who are depressed or have other mental health problems might perceive and report their experiences more negatively than other people who had the same experience but are free of mental health problems.
The results of the research were not always consistent with the expected outcome suggested by the hypotheses.
Outcomes for partners and children of Timor-Leste veterans: research aim 1
The outcomes for the partners of Timor-Leste veterans were compared with those for partners of ADF members who did not deploy to Timor-Leste. The results show that on all measures of physical, mental and social health the partners and children of Timor-Leste veterans were no more likely than those in the comparison group to experience physical, mental or family ill-health. In addition, the majority of individuals had results that fell within the normal or healthy range in relation to measures of smoking, alcohol consumption, pregnancy outcomes and child behaviours.
Deployment frequency as a risk factor: research aim 2
Chapter 6 reports the results of data analysis for research aim 2 in connection with the potential risk and protective factors of deployment frequency. The analysis shows that, for partners,the number of deployments was not associated with physical, mental or family ill-health.
The only statistically significant outcome reported for partners was that those who rated the Timor-Leste deployment negatively also reported poorer outcomes in relation to physical and mental health and relationship satisfaction.
The number of deployments was, however, associated with negative effects for children. Children who had a parent who had deployed two to five times were statistically more likely to exhibit negative behavioural health than children with a parent who had never deployed. There was no statistically significant difference in outcomes between children whose parent had deployed once and those whose parent had never deployed. There was also an association between increasing numbers of deployments and an increase in reported behavioural problems. Nevertheless, the absolute number of children experiencing problems was not large—at between 5 and 12 per cent.
Other risk factors: research aim 2
Chapters 7 and 8 also deal with research aim 2. They look at whether risk and protective factors other than deployment frequency are associated with health outcomes for families and assess whether the overall health of an ADF member is associated with their family’s health and functioning. Again, the cross sectional nature of the study meant that the direction of causation is not certain.
Low scores on family functioning, the type of coping style adopted by the partner (emotion focused as opposed to problem focused) and exposure to intimate partner violence—all potential risk factors—were associated with poorer outcomes in terms of several measures of mental health for partners. On the other hand, the quality of the partner’s relationship and their ability to make use of social and formal support networks were found to be protective against symptoms of poor mental health for partners and protective against negative emotions and behaviours for children. These associations were statistically significant.
When data on physical and mental health measures were matched between ADF members and their partners, the results showed that most couples were satisfied with their relationship. There was, however, a consistent and strong relationship between an ADF member’s mental health and their partner’s mental health: negative mental health outcomes for ADF members were associated with poorer outcomes for their partners.
This negative association was found to be passed on to the child (or children) through the partner parent: when the partner parent reported poor mental health, children were also reported as being at increased risk of emotional and behavioural problems.
What do the results tell us?
When compared with the findings in the literature, not all the study’s findings were expected, which lends support to the premise that international research might not always be applicable to the Australian context.
On the whole, the study results are positive and encouraging for Australian families of current and past ADF members. The physical and mental health of the families of those members who deployed to Timor-Leste was robust when compared with that of the comparison group, suggesting that the former group are resilient in the face of deployment challenges.
The positive results on measures of health were consistent for multiple deployments. This could be indicative of a ‘healthy families’ effect, whereby those families that are able to manage well the deployment of one parent are more likely to remain in the military and therefore undergo further deployment.
What remains uncertain is how much of an effect deployment has on subjective assessments of health. The data suggest it is possible that partners and children are experiencing difficulties not detected by the current research. For instance, those who rated the Timor-Leste deployment more negatively reported worse physical and mental health, and as the number of overall deployments increased more partners reported a negative effect on relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, the most difficult aspect of deployment reported by partners is one that is difficult to change—the physical absence of the deployed person.
The results for research aim 2 provide a wealth of data relevant to policy and practice. It appears that the mental health of partners and the emotional and behavioural health of children are affected by the mental health of the serving member.