Parents’ deployment in war zones affects their children negatively

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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The consequences of parental military deployment in war zones have profound implications for the mental health being of their children. Military deployment can have lasting mental health consequences on children, and those consequences intensify the longer a parent is deployed.

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine on July 4th, found that compared with children whose parents did not deploy, children of parents who did deploy had an excess of 6,579 mental health diagnoses.

After the children's age, sex, and mental health history were adjusted for, excess mental health diagnoses associated with parental deployment were greatest for acute stress reaction/adjustment, depressive, and pediatric behavioral disorders and increased with total months of parental deployment. Boys and girls showed similar patterns within these same categories, with more diagnoses observed in older children, and in boys relative to girls within age groups.

For the study, researchers examined 4.3 million electronic medical records for outpatient primary and specialty care medical visits occurring between Jan. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2006.

Of the 307,520 children identified from those records, 16.7% had at least one mental health diagnosis, most commonly for disorders of stress (5.9%), depression (5.6%), pediatric behavioral issues (4.8%), anxiety (2.7%), and sleep (2.4%).

More than 62% of parents were deployed at least once during the study period, for an average of 11 months.

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Among boys, the number of excess cases of mental health diagnoses per 1,000 deployed personnel (more than 11 months) was:

• 36.9 among 5- to 8-year-olds
• 48.3 among 9- to 12-year-olds
• 50.4 among 13- to 17-year-olds

Comparable numbers among girls were lower:

• 31.8 among 5-to-8-year-olds
• 35.5 among 9-to-12-year-olds
• 45.5 among 13-to-17-year-olds

And even though shorter deployment duration resulted in lower mental health problems, mental health concerns were still elevated for the 13- to 17-year-olds. Stephen J. Cozza, MD, from the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.,noted that 44% of active duty members have children. Of these, nearly three-quarters are 11 years of age or younger.

That leaves many younger children at increased risk for mental health and adjustment issues which may impact them for a long time. Dr. Cozza said we need to raise awareness about the health consequences of parental combat deployment and encourage clinicians to inquire about veterans’ experiences in war zones.

It would be interesting to pursue the study further to explore the factors that contribute to the children’s mental health disturbances. Is it the stress associated with not knowing if the parent is safe? The disturbed family dynamics resulting from the absence of a parent whose life is in danger? The transmitted trauma and post-traumatic stress brought home by the deployed parent?

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