Study finds lengthy deployments contribute to mental health problems in children

The prolonged deployment of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade of war is taking a toll on the mental health of children whose parents serve, according to a new study.

The study, published this month by the American Medical Association, found 16.7 percent of the children included in the research received at least one mental health diagnosis from 2003 to 2006, mostly involving stress disorders or depression. Older children and boys in particular are adversely affected by a parent's deployment, according to the research. And children whose parents were deployed for longer periods fared worse than kids whose caretakers spent less time on active duty.

The study examined data for outpatient and specialty care medical visits between 2003 and 2006 for more than 300,000 children aged 5 to 17 of active-duty Army personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The length of deployment for military parents in the study was 11 months on average during the three-year period.

Mental health diagnoses among boys equaled or exceeded those among girls, except in three categories: somatoform or factitious disorders, neurotic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Somatoform disorder involves physical symptoms that indicate an illness or injury but cannot be explained by an actual medical condition, while people with factitious disorders deliberately feign or exaggerate symptoms.

"Installation-level support programs for families of deployed personnel represent a first step in addressing the mental health needs of children associated with current operations," the study said. "Our findings support increasing targeted efforts, specifically on military installations deploying greater numbers of troops."

Alyssa Mansfield, one of the study's lead authors, is an epidemiologist at the Veterans Health Administration. She conducted a similar study in 2010 that confirmed prolonged deployments increase diagnoses of mental health problems among Army wives. In a recent interview, Mansfield said while there are clearly challenges for military families, she believes most actually are doing fairly well.

The publication of the study coincided with the Obama administration's reversal on Wednesday of a long-standing policy of not sending condolence letters to families of military personnel who commit suicide in the combat zone. The new policy did not address letters to the families of service members who commit suicide after they've returned home.

During the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan the Pentagon has focused more time, money and resources than ever before on the mental health and well-being of soldiers and veterans. More services are available to help military members with programs devoted to suicide prevention, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and marriage counseling. In 2010, a task force led by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, issued a report on the increase in soldier suicides that included more than 250 recommendations, including recruiting more mental health counselors and expanding behavioral health services at installations. While many of these benefits are available to the families of service members, spouses and children increasingly suffer from debilitating depression and anxiety, either because they do not seek help or do not know where to obtain it.

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