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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Meeting the Needs of Military Families: What Advocates Need to Know

By Dana Markey, program manager, NAMI’s Child and Adolescent Action Center

military family

Some of the Americans most affected by military service are too young to enlist—the almost 2 million, or 4 percent, of U.S. children who are living in military families. As part of military life, these children experience frequent moves and multiple deployments, both of which are major life stressors for children. New research studies show that children of military families have high rates of mental health challenges. Depression is seen in one of four military children. A study of the children of parents serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of participants in Operation Purple summer camp found that children also experience significantly higher stress scores and rates of emotional and behavioral difficulties compared to the national average. As for all young people, the needs of military children are unique, but all are shaped to some extent by the fact that they have a parent in uniform.

An estimated 700,000 children have at least one deployed parent. A deployment usually lasts 12-15 months and involves difficult transitions for a family—not only when the service member deploys, but also when he or she returns home. Having a parent deployed to a war zone is one of the most stressful events a child can experience. Even for those not serving overseas, military families are expected to move every three to four years, if not more often. Such frequent moving can have a negative affect on children’s adjustment to new schools and communities, sometimes leading to a lack of stability, connectedness and support.

These multiple stressors can take their toll on military children, who sometimes need mental health treatment in order to cope. A research study on military families published in the November 2010 issue of Pediatrics shows that when a military parent is deployed, mental and behavioral health visits increase by 11 percent. Additionally, behavioral disorders increase by 19 percent and stress disorders increase by 18 percent. Children with a deployed parent often experience the following:

  • changes in school performance—lower test scores, academic difficulties, inattention and unable to complete work;
  • lashing out in anger, worrying and hiding emotions;
  • increased anxiety, depression and other mental health problems;
  • withdrawal and social isolation;
  • sleeping problems;
  • feelings of a sense of loss or danger; and
  • appearing listless, unmotivated and uninterested.

For children in the mental health care system, moving can significantly disrupt their mental health care and their relationships with health care providers. Additionally, for children who are experiencing social isolation because of their mental health conditions, the mobility of military life only worsens an already-difficult situation. For children living with preexisting mental health conditions, having a parent deployed can mean the loss of a critical source of support, a key member of their treatment team and an important advocate.

Supporting Military Families

Military families report that the stigma surrounding mental health conditions is still prevalent within the military culture. This may make military families less likely to seek needed services and supports and instead try and go at it alone. It is important that these families know that they are not alone, that mental health conditions are just like any other physical condition that can impact youth.

In order to better address the unique needs of military families who have a child living with a mental health condition, NAMI has dedicated the upcoming issue of Beginnings to providing NAMI leaders, advocates, health care providers and others with the resources they need to better support these families and combat the stigma on military installations. Beginnings is NAMI’s quarterly magazine dedicated to child and adolescent mental health issues.

The upcoming issue includes a wide range of articles that cover the various issues military families face:

  • how mental health advocates can combat the stigma prevalent in the military culture so that children and their families can access the services and supports they need;
  • the services and supports available to military families, including those who have a child living with a mental health condition;
  • an overview of the existing research on children of military families;
  • strategies on how health care providers can better address the needs of military children and their families;
  • personal stories about military culture and the positive and negative effects it can have on children living with mental health conditions; and
  • guidance on promoting and bringing mental health education and support programs to military families.

All of these articles offer valuable insight into the lived experience of military families who have children living with mental health conditions. They also identify critical areas where support for military families is needed most. In particular, National Guard and Reserve families have been identified as a high priority. Since these families do not live on military installations nor live the typical military lifestyle, they often do not have a natural, supportive community that understands their needs readily available. NAMI state and local leaders are in a prime position to provide a supportive community for these families. This edition of Beginnings is a step towards publicizing the unique and often overlooked challenges military families face when raising a child living with a mental health condition.

To receive a free subscription to the Beginnings magazine, contact Bianca Ruffin at biancar@nami.org. The magazine can also be accessed online at www.nami.org/caac.

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