For years, we have focused on the mental health issues that veterans and active military personnel face. Unfortunately, the statistics show grim results. Approximately 20 veterans take their own lives every day, accounting for 14 percent of all adult suicide death rates in 2016.
While direct military experience can impact mental health, research is now highlighting the ramifications that children of military families experience.
What The Research Shows
According to the Uniformed Services University, healthcare providers have reported an increase in psychiatric diagnoses, prescription medications, and clinical care for children in the Military Health System (MHS).
Between 2003 to 2015, there was a 2 percent increase in mental health care visits from children ages 2 to 18. Additionally, diagnosable psychiatric conditions rose from 9 percent in 2003 to 15.5 percent in 2015. As a result, the use of psychotropic medications also increased by about 7 percent during that same time frame.
What's most alarming? Suicidal ideation has been on the rise, increasing by more than 20 percent.
Why Are Children Susceptible?
All children—whether or not they are part of a military family—are susceptible to mental health disorders. According to the CDC, nearly 10 percent of children aged 2 to 17 have an ADHD diagnosis, and almost 7 percent of children have a diagnosed behavior problem or anxiety disorder.
Moreover, suicide remains the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 12 and 24. More children and young adults die from suicide than from the majority of serious medical issues (i.e., cancer, heart disease, influenza) combined.
That said, military children face additional stressors related to changing family dynamics, deployment, and geographical relocations.
Understanding How Military Life Affects Children
While many people conjure images of gruesome wars when they think of military trauma, this isn't the only event plaguing children.
Even pre-deployment can be stressful. The weeks and months leading up to deployment may be consumed with stressful events related to getting finances in order and managing legal issues. Children can anticipate a change is happening, but they may feel hopeless and powerless as a result.
The deployment itself may evoke feelings of pain, abandonment, and loneliness. The child may feel angry or rejected by the deployed parent. Additionally, the child may cling onto the "parent left behind," which may also create additional stress on the parent.
Finally, even post-deployment (which is typically considered a happy time) can result in adjustment stress related to creating "new normalcy." However, this can be especially challenging if the deployed parent suffered physical injuries or develops mental illness symptoms (such as PTSD).
The stress of military life can impact even the most secure couples. Frustration, anxiety, and loneliness within the parent dyad can filter onto the children, which can result in mental health issues.
Fortunately, there are many resources available to military families and their children. Education can be the most powerful tool in preparing youth for this difficult process. Some helpful resources include:
Additionally, each military branch has individual resources and services designed for service members and their families.
Seeking appropriate treatment for your child is one of the best decisions you can make for his or her well-being. It is never too late to intervene. All children face stress, but if you are noticing that your loved one is suffering more than usual, it's time to reach out for support.