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Military Kids at Higher Risk of Suicidal Thoughts

After more than a decade of living with the separations and uncertainties endemic to military life, many children from military families are paying the emotional and psychological costs.
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Nonprofit and volunteer veterans groups, along with the Department of Defense, rightly focus on the mental health needs of the warriors who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their children deserve attention as well. After more than a decade of living with the separations and uncertainties endemic to military life, many children from military families are paying the emotional and psychological costs.

Approximately one-quarter of high school freshmen and juniors with either a parent or a sibling in the military say they have had suicidal thoughts during the past year, according to a new study that colleagues and I conducted in California. Some of their nonmilitary peers also said they had seriously thought about killing themselves in the past year, but at frequencies -- roughly 19 percent of freshmen and about 17 percent of juniors -- much closer to the national rate.

We used data generated by the California Healthy Kids Survey, which is annually administered to 7th, 9th and 11th graders in public schools by the state's Department of Education. About 13 percent of the 14,000 teenagers we studied had a military connection. Previous mental health studies have focused on military children in clinical settings receiving treatment, which made it difficult to estimate the extent of the problem.

The significantly higher level of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts among students with a parent or sibling in the military no doubt reflects the stresses of military life and war. The psychological effects can vary depending on a student's family situation. For example, the more times a parent or sibling is deployed, the higher the risk that students would experience feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

One of the unexpected findings of our study was that the deployment of a sibling can be as stressful for a younger family member as that of a parent. This suggests that children in military families may be more vulnerable to depressive thoughts than previously thought because the focus has been on the psychological effects of an absent parent. One result is that many at-risk children who need support may be falling between the cracks.

There is some preliminary evidence that military-connected students who have gone through many familial deployments may be more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts than their nonmilitary peers. The higher number of military students burdened with depressive symptoms underscores the urgency of taking steps to improve their psychological wellbeing.

Fortunately, we're not starting from scratch. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has pushed the development of a mobile app, ReliefLink, to address the needs of adults at risk of committing suicide. The app could prevent a suicide by linking people to helplines, 911 operators, friends and family members who can help in a crisis.

ReliefLink app should be adapted for use by military-connected students, and the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs should heavily publicize its availability at the public schools they mostly attend. Shouldn't students who might be experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts or anxiety over a parent's or sibling's deployment have someone they know they can contact?

In carrying out their responsibility to provide a safe learning environment, military-connected schools could improve their teachers' awareness and knowledge of how to recognize and respond to students who are in such emotional pain that they might consider suicide.

Even when educators recognize the signs of danger, budgetary constraints and pressure to meet student-achievement goals can force school districts into a Faustian bargain of having to choose between hiring more social workers and psychologists or more teachers and technology. This is a false choice. Schools can always partner with many community-based agencies and mental health providers that sponsor workshops -- often at little or no cost. In San Diego County, home to many military-connected schools, the Suicide Prevention Council offers Question, Persuade and Refer training to teachers, parents and community members. The program has been successfully replicated nationally in outpatient and school settings and has saved many lives.

But we would be kidding ourselves if we think we can solve this problem with more fiscal support. More money is needed to support returning veterans and their children. In part, that means more social workers and psychologists on civilian campuses with high concentrations of military-connected students. It also means that university schools of education and social work need to supplement their training programs with more instruction on how to identify kids with depressive symptoms and to provide resources for their families.

Sadly, sequestration has already cut many programs and services for military families. Unless congressional negotiators can agree on a compromise to scale back, or end, the automatic mandated budget cuts, the situation will only worsen. The Department of Defense is scheduled to absorb a disproportionate share of the cuts set to go into effect in mid-January.

The politicians and pressure groups in Washington strictly talk about our national debt in dollar amounts. But there is another kind of debt -- the debt we owe our military families who have paid economically, socially and emotionally in fighting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There should be nothing automatic about having to choose between combat readiness and services that could help depressed military students from committing suicide. That's no way to show that we care.

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