A new study conducted by researchers at the School of Social Work and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that adolescents with either a sibling or parent in the military are more likely to report being suicidal or depressed when compared with their peers.
Families have been affected by more and more tours of duty since the country has been at war for more than a decade.
“These are kind of an invisible minority group. Most people in the civilian public kind of pretend we’re not at war, but we’re close to 12 years at war, and many of these kids have experienced parental deployment, war zones, PTSD,” said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education, and one of the principal architects of the study.
The study was made possible by a large grant from the Department of Defense to provide services and to evaluate what the best practices are in public schools that have students with family members in the military. Astor said there are approximately 1.3 million children in public schools affected and, since 9/11, about 5 million children who have been affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though numerous studies have been conducted about the effects of war, few have focused on its impact on adolescents.
“The reason we chose to look at kids with parents or siblings in the military is because we’ve had a decade of war and we have a lot of information now about the individual deployed and sometimes their partner or spouse but very little information how it impacts adolescent health,” said Julie Cederbaum, assistant professor of social work and lead author of the study.
The researchers collected data in conjunction with the California Healthy Kids Survey, a survey that is administered biannually to all public schools students in fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades in public schools receiving Title IV funding. A military supplement was included as part of the survey for eight school districts in California, and both military and non-military students took both parts of the survey.
Almost 25 percent of ninth and 11th-grade students with a military parent and more than 26 percent of students with a military sibling said they had thought about ending their lives, compared with 19.1 percent of non-military students, according to a press release.
“These results are very powerful because they show that, first of all, non-military kids are having problems too, there are lot of suicidal teenagers across California,” Astor said.
Cederbaum said she was surprised to learn that each additional tour of duty further impacted mental health.
“Some of these families have had four deployments, five deployments, six deployments,” Astor said. “We’ve never had wars like that in our history where one family has had to sacrifice so much.”
One policy change that has already been implemented as a result of the study is that schools are beginning to identify military adolescents within their communities.
Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, students taking the survey will be able to check a box that will identify them as connected to the military.
Cederbaum said such data will allow schools and health professionals to better target their resources and support. Astor, however, added that it’s important to avoid attaching a stigma to these students and targeting them individually, but rather to use the data to highlight the importance of the issue to parents and educators.
“If you’re a [teacher] in a high school classroom and you know that 27 percent of the kids in your class are from military families have thought about committing suicide and have a plan, then it’s not an abstract number from a study in Iowa. These are kids right in front of you,” Astor said. “What meaning does that math test have then?”
Both Cederbaum and Astor spoke about the importance of teaching parents, educators and peers about military culture as well as mental health issues and how to deal with adolescents who are depressed or suicidal.
“It’s about providing a climate and an atmosphere where people know what the resources where friends and families know what to do, where parents and educators know how to handle it when large numbers of kids are saying they don’t want to live anymore,” Astor said.
Cederbaum said more schools can implement things such as “transition rooms,” resource centers that are particularly beneficial for military students who often have to move frequently between schools.
Astor also stressed the importance of having counselors and social work experts in schools addressing the issues of depression and suicide so kids don’t “fall through the cracks.” He said the focus should be on educating peers, parents and teachers about the resources available, not about screening or identifying.
“The percentages don’t seem to be changing. They’re crying out and it’s pretty cynical as a society to ask these kinds of questions [about suicide] in detail in the classroom, and then not provide the resources or help to educate the peers, the parents and the community about what to do about it,” he said.
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