Teenagers with family members in the military were more likely to contemplate suicide if their relatives were deployed overseas multiple times, USC researchers found in a study published Monday.
After analyzing survey data from 14,299 secondary school students in California — including more than 1,900 with parents or siblings in the military — the researchers found a link between a family member’s deployment history and a variety of mental health problems, including thoughts about suicide.
Their study, published online by the Journal of Adolescent Health, joins a growing body of evidence that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a hefty toll on children in military
“Given the link between separation and emotional health, it is not surprising that adolescents experiencing deployments were more likely to report feeling sad or hopeless, depressive symptoms, and increased suicide ideation and that more deployments further exacerbated these experiences,” said Julie A. Cederbaum, the lead author of the study and one of a team of researchers from the USC School of Social Work.
USC researchers piggybacked on a statewide health survey of public school students in 2011 and added questions for seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in four Southern California school districts — all near military bases — about the military status and deployment histories of their parents and siblings. Unlike most studies on the mental health of military-connected children, this one is drawn from a nonclinical sample of students in public schools, according to the announcement of the study findings.
Researches compared military-connected youth with nonmilitary-connected youth attending the same classrooms and schools, and living in the same communities. The study found that girls were more likely to report “poor well-being.”
Researchers suggested it could be that adolescent girls may take on more responsibility at home when one parent is deployed.
They further theorized that young teens might feel worse than their younger siblings because they have a better understanding of the consequences of war. While they support their deployed parent, they could also “perceive deployment as a burden on them and on the non-deployed parent,” the authors write.
They suggested that when aware of a student’s family’s deployed status —public schools, mental health providers and physicians should systematically screen adolescents for depression and suicide ideation.
“Providers can be trained to identify warning signs that an adolescent may be experiencing problems and should be supported with referrals to evidence-based interventions that can reduce the long-term consequences of deployment-related stressors,” the authors write.
“Increasing capacity of support personnel in medical and school settings can help identify the mental health risks and needs of adolescents with military-connected parents and siblings,” Cederbaum said.