U. WASHINGTON (US) — When parents are deployed overseas, the adolescent children left behind can suffer from the invisible wounds of war—impaired well-being and other mental problems.
“There is a lot of research about veterans and active-duty soldiers, and how they cope or struggle when they return from a deployment,” says Sarah Reed at the University of Washington.
“Those studies hit the tip of the iceberg of how families are coping and how their children are doing.”
Adolescents, and particularly boys, are uniquely vulnerable to adverse health effects from parental military deployment, Reed says, because healthy development, including identifying a sense of self and separation from family, is often interrupted during parents’ active military service.
Media exposure and the developmental ability to understand the consequences of war may further disrupt adolescents’ adjustment and coping. Teens may also have additional responsibilities at home after a parent’s deployment, researchers said.
For the new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers used data from the Washington state 2008 Healthy Youth Survey, administered to more than 10,000 adolescents in 8th, 10th- and 12th grade classrooms.
Female 8th graders with parents deployed to combat appear to be at risk of depression and thoughts of suicide. Male counterparts in all grades are at increased risk of impaired well-being in all of the areas examined (low quality of life, binge drinking, drug use and low academic achievement).
“We have to figure out more of what’s going on within families and with children, and what’s going to be helpful to mitigate the difficult things—including risky behaviors by adolescents—that are happening in families,” Reed says.
Implementing or strengthening school-based programs that target affected adolescents would be a good starting point. Research and support programs also need to be beefed up, based on the research team’s analysis.
“There seem to be a lot of programs available but they are scattered and hard to navigate. In Washington state, schools have support programs, but they appear to be disconnected,” Reed says.
“There’s a lot of energy in terms of people who would like to help, but a more cohesive effort in reaching out to adolescents and providing services is important.”
The Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services funded the study.
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