Tacoma, Wash. • An adolescent whose parent is sent on military deployments is more likely to have suicidal thoughts and feel depressed than the child of civilians, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
The report drew on a 2008 mental health survey distributed in Washington schools. It's believed to be one of the broadest studies yet directly comparing military teens with the children of civilians since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began a decade ago.
Its lead author hopes it will lead to increased awareness about stresses on military children and motivate new efforts to help teens.
"It's really time to focus on the children that are left behind," said Sarah Reed, the lead author of the report, which was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
More than 10,600 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students filled out the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. The state distributes the survey every two years.
The one in 2008 was the first to ask questions about whether a child's parent had deployed in the previous six years. At the time, Washington's population included more than 60,000 active-duty service members, the sixth most in the country.
Reed's report did not try to answer why boys would show more signs of distress, but it cited other studies that suggested boys might struggle to connect emotionally with an absent parent and that they might engage in more high-risk behaviors that could exacerbate their depression.
The report also notes higher percentages of military adolescents reporting binge drinking and drug use than civilian teens.
Boys are hit harder
Researchers found that boys are most sensitive to the stress of a parent's deployment. For example:
Quality of life • Forty-four percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys who reported having a parent serving in uniform overseas felt they had a low quality of life. Among civilian families, 20 percent of boys in those age groups reported a low quality of life.
Depression • Thirty percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys whose parent had deployed felt depressed compared with 20 percent of boys in civilian families.
Suicidal thoughts • Twenty-six percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys with a deployed parent reported suicidal thoughts, whereas 14 percent of boys in civilian families reported having those notions.