Military Kids Are Hurting More Than We Know
The stress of their parents' deployment and more may compromise their mental health
Thousands of American children will attend summer camps in the months ahead. Operation Purple Camp is one of them. Its purpose is to unite children whose parents are in the military and offer a built-in support system to help kids cope with the unique challenges their families face.
Kids who attend this camp are prone to dealing with mental health issues. The percentage of military kids with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other mental health conditions rose from 10 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2015, a new study has found.
The camp welcomes kids who are all “in the same boat,” said Karen Ruedisueli. She is the government relations deputy director at the National Military Family Association, which runs the camps throughout the United States.
“Getting them together helps them understand, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one going through this,’” Ruedisueli said.
The NMFA has been tracking mental health impacts on military kids for years. Many people believe that because troop deployments overall are down, the issues are in the past. It’s not true for military families, even if a military member is not deployed.
"We feel this is an issue that's going to continue well into the future," Ruedisueli told LifeZette.
Her own spouse is currently deployed, so Ruedisueli knows firsthand how tough that can be on children. In the past, her children were in schools with a larger population of military children that provided support and encouragement. Now, most of her kids' classmates are civilians.
While there are resources to assist military children, parents of children in communities that are predominantly civilian have to worker harder to seek them out.
Statistics Tell a Story
The new study followed roughly 1.6 million children from ages 2 to 18 who received Military Health System care. During the 15-year span, researchers noted that diagnoses for suicidal ideation, adjustment, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct, cognitive, mood, psychotic, eating, and other disorders all increased. The starkest growth was among children who had thoughts of suicide — that went up 22 percent.
Children also received more treatment for mental health conditions. Over the study period, the number of visits went from 5 to 12 per year. The percentage of kids on psychotropic medications rose from 8 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2014.
"The results also suggest there is an increasing need for pediatric mental health care professionals to provide the needed care," Dr. Elizabeth Hisle-Gorman, lead author and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Uniformed Services University, said in a statement.
Dr. David Albright, an associate professor of mental health at the University of Alabama who specializes in military mental health, said there aren't enough intervention programs — and that civilians are largely unaware of the issues that military children face.
"The kids are invisible," he told LifeZette. "[People] just don't know military kids are even there. It's really tough to argue for policy, much less specific intervention programs, when we largely don't even identify the kids."
Though Albright acknowledges such efforts as those by the Military Child Education Coalition, there can be a lack of resources for children of National Guard and Reserve programs, he said, because those children may not attend school with other military children.
In most public schools, children's intake paperwork doesn't indicate (or even ask) if they have military family members. If a child acts out or shows signs of a mental health condition, the school may refer the child for assistance — but the counselor likely won't ask about any military ties or have the resources to help the kids if a military issue is a factor in their mental health.
Making this information known to key people may help more children who are struggling, Albright said. "Everyone needs to advocate for asking if [there are service members] connected to them," Albright said. "It seems like such a simple thing. That's not being done."
Children's strong mental health is important, of course, whether their parents are connected to the military or not.
"There are tremendous opportunities for more mental health improvements irrespective of military affiliation," said Albright. "There's just a disconnect there."
Military parents can help their kids by being more aware of the risks of developing mental health problems. Parents need to be proactive and ask questions of educators and health care providers, Albright said.
Studies have found that the more an in-home parent struggled with deployment, the worse off the child seemed. Though a majority of military-connected children are just fine, parents should watch for any behavioral changes; they should also take good care of themselves so their children do not experience similar issues.
Ruedisueli said recent "inexcusable" cuts to child care services at Fort Drum near Watertown, New York, for example, where many partners are deployed, have put more strain on couples.
Civilians who feel powerless should reach out to military families. When a recent blizzard hit Ruedisueli's home in Arlington, Virginia, she was grateful that neighbors came to shovel her out. Military families truly appreciate any kind of help that alleviates stress, she said.