Help needed for children of soldiers


POSTED: Thursday, July 09, 2009

Much has been written about the psychological stress plaguing U.S. soldiers cycling in and out of war zones, but now comes news of an alarming spike in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among children of active-duty military families.

The findings have grave implications in Hawaii, where many spouses and children remain while their active-duty loved ones are repeatedly deployed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For some families, being based so far from extended family elsewhere in the United States compounds the stress and sense of isolation.

A concentrated effort to provide a range of services is strongly encouraged.

Internal Pentagon documents show that children of U.S. military troops sought outpatient mental health care 2 million times last year, double the number at the start of the Iraq war. The number of military kids actually hospitalized for mental health reasons also sharply increased.

The number of children and spouses of active-duty personnel and Guard and Reserve troops seeking mental health care steadily increased over the past few years, but the reasons are not clear from the documents, according to the Associated Press.

Last year's increase in child hospitalizations coincided with the “;surge”; of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops into Iraq to stabilize the country, but military families have coped for years now with their loved ones serving repeated tours in war zones.

The severe economic recession that has affected most American families could be a factor, as could the fact that the military has urged families not to avoid seeking help, encouragement that might reveal mental health issues unrelated to the stress of deployment.

Still, the statistics seem to reinforce the concerns of military leaders and private family organizations about the strains of the wars, which for some families means coping not only with the pain of separation, but also with the injuries or deaths of loved ones.

The military plans additional research into the matter.

In the meantime, it seems wise to bolster efforts already under way to encourage the armed forces, the Department of Veterans Affairs and state and local agencies to share mental health resources to help as many suffering families as quickly as possible.

Given that access to therapists and other mental health care providers also has been a concern, several groups have stepped up to help, including by providing Web sites that parents can peruse in private, as they weigh their needs and options.

An easy one to navigate is http://www.nmfa.org, the site of the National Military Family Association. Its Mental Health Information Portal gives the issue the prominence it deserves and includes online screening tools to assess the urgency of a situation, including the risk of suicide.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, stress is a fact of life for military families. But accepting that fact does not preclude the military and the larger communities where these families live from doing all they can to ease the pain of children whose parents are serving the country.