Children of deployed troops struggle, researchers find

Posted July 22, 2011, at 4:55 p.m.

TACOMA, Wash. — An adolescent whose parent is sent on military deployments is more likely to have suicidal thoughts and feel depressed than the child of civilians, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

The report drew on a 2008 mental health survey distributed in Washington schools. It’s believed to be one of the broadest studies yet directly comparing military teens with the children of civilians since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago.

Its lead author hopes it will lead to increased awareness about stresses on military children and motivate new efforts to help teens.

“It’s really time to focus on the children that are left behind,” said Sarah Reed, the lead author of the report, which was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

More than 10,600 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students filled out the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. The state distributes the survey every two years.

The one in 2008 was the first to ask questions about whether a child’s parent had deployed in the previous six years. At the time, Washington’s population included more than 60,000 active-duty service members, the sixth most in the country.

Researchers found that boys are most sensitive to the stress of a parent’s deployment. For example:

Forty-four percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys who reported having a parent serving in uniform overseas felt they had a low quality of life. Among civilian families, 20 percent of boys in those age groups reported a low quality of life.

Thirty percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys whose parent had deployed felt depressed compared with 20 percent of boys in civilian families.

Twenty-six percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys with a deployed parent reported suicidal thoughts, whereas 14 percent of boys in civilian families reported having those notions.

High school girls whose parent had deployed overseas also were more likely to report depression, but the differences were not as pronounced.

Reed’s report did not try to answer why boys would show more signs of distress, but it cited other studies that suggested boys might struggle to connect emotionally with an absent parent and that they might engage in more high-risk behaviors that could exacerbate their depression.

The report also notes higher percentages of military adolescents reporting binge drinking and drug use than civilian teens.

Reed, who’s now employed as a social worker at a Boston cancer clinic, would like to see her report contribute to discussions between the military, schools and community groups about how to provide better programs for children of service members.

“I don’t think one arm, whether it’s a federal program or a local program or a school district program, is going to capture all the need,” she said.

Several efforts are under way in and around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The U.S. Army Medical Command has placed counselors in six on-base schools and is looking for ways to provide a similar service outside the gates of the installation, Medical Command spokesman Eric Olson said.

Madigan Army Medical Center’s Child and Family Assistance Center is another resource for military families seeking behavioral health assistance. It offers a drop-in mental health clinic for active-duty families.

In addition, off base, nonprofit groups offer special services for military kids. The Boys and Girls Club of the South Sound, for example, has after-school programs.

A statewide military kids summit has also been held in Tacoma the last four years. Panel discussions allow family members a chance to tell their stories.

“I was in eighth grade when my dad deployed to Iraq,” Aaron Davis, 18, of Vancouver, recalled at this year’s summit in March. “A kid walked up to me and said ‘You’re dad’s a baby killer.’ I didn’t handle that well. We both wound up suspended for that one.”

The report’s authors are working on a follow-up study analyzing parental military service and violent adolescent behaviors, such as fighting and gang membership.

“We have these expectations of military families to be able to do everything always, all the time,” Reed said. “There are so many things we can mitigate if we prepare people better.”

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