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Mental Illness Awareness Week October 7-13: What About the Children of our Troops?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a patient advocacy organization observe Mental Illness Awareness Week every year to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

We have covered the issues of the burden of mental illness in our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in other posts. The work is stressful - but what about the children who are left behind when parents are deployed to fight? Our mental health system is strained as a result of the continuing burden of war. Mental health workers need to consider the effects of separation on military children. Children and spouses of deployed troops experience increased incidence of depression compared with families of nondeployed troops. The depression manifests as internalized symptoms rather than behaviors in these children, so outreach is especially important in this population. Boys were found to be more vulnerable than girls, younger boys in particular.

Children, recognizing that the family unit is under stress, may hide their symptoms of depression and anxiety. Clinicians suggest that when parents return from duty and life resumes as before the deployment, affected children let off steam and may manifest behavior problems. Thus, health care providers can not rely on the reports of parents and caregivers to determine the mental health status of the child. The child must be interviewed and assessed.

Military life does provide good social support systems as well as free medical care to families that should help buffer families through stressful times. Mental health experts recommend these tips for deployed service members:
  • Discuss the deployment with your children and reassure them. Answer their questions honestly with age appropriate information
  • During your deployment, write each child a separate letter or send each an individual audio or videotape expressing your love for them
  • Arrange for older male companionship (uncles, grandfathers) for young boys
  • Before returning home, discuss with children that both the deployed parent and the children will have changed during the absence
  • Allow time for family members to get reacquainted and adjust to the change
Remember - the child, especially younger children and boys - may be suffering in silence. Reach out and ask how they are doing, how they are feeling. Provide support during the absence of the parent. Kids are resilient, but not as tough as we think they are.

Thank you for use of photo Greeting Family by Jacob Sippel, US Navy.
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