Mental Health: Military Youth Versus General Population

12 October 2014
 October 12, 2014
Category: Company

A recent UCLA study of 14,300 high school-age teens in California (9th and 11th graders) showed teens who experience the military deployment of a parent or sibling face a greater risk of depression.

Teens who had experienced two or more family deployments over the past decade were 56 percent  more likely to feel sad or hopeless; and 34 percent were more likely to have suicidal thoughts compared to non-military peers.

This study is one of the very few that compare students from military families to their non-military peers. Of the 14,300 students in the study, less than 14 percent reported having a connection with the military. The more deployments a teen experienced, the higher the percentage of teens feeling depressed, compared to kids with no deployment experience. E.g. those with only one deployment in the family were 15 percent more likely to feel depressed than kids with no deployment experience; while those with two or more deployments were 41 percent more likely to report symptoms of depression.

After comparing the results to recent statistics for U.S. teens in general, the research team at UCLA found that:

  • 28.5 percent of all teens report feeling sad or hopeless
  • 33.7 percent of teens with a parent in the military report feeling sad or hopeless
  • 35.3 percent with a sibling in the military report feeling sad or hopeless


  • 15 percent of teens in the general population report suicidal thoughts
  • 24.8 percent of teens with a parent in the military report suicidal thoughts
  • 26.1 percent of teens with a sibling in the military report suicidal thoughts

In an article titled “Children’s Mental Health: What Every Policymaker Should Know” by Shannon Stagman and Janice L. Cooper, April 2010, at the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the authors state:

  • One in five children birth to 18 has a diagnosable mental disorder
  • One in 10 youth has a serious mental health problem severe enough to impair how they function at home, in school and in the community
  • The onset of major mental illness may occur as early as 7-11 years old
  • Children and youth at increased risk for mental health problems include those in low income households, those in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and those in military families

Children and youth in military families tend to have higher rates of mental health problems than those in the general population and those mental health problems are especially pronounced during the parent’s deployment.

  • 32 percent of children of military families have been scored as “high risk” for child psychosocial morbidity, which is 2.5 times the national average.
  • There is a higher prevalence of emotional and behavioral difficulties in youth aged 11 to 17 in military families compared to the general population.
  • During a parent’s deployment, children exhibit behavior changes including changes in school performance, lashing out in anger, disrespecting authority figures and symptoms of depression.
  • Children age 3 to 5 with a deployed parent exhibit more behavioral symptoms than their peers without a deployed parent.
  • The rate of child maltreatment in families of enlisted Army soldiers is 42 percent higher during combat deployment than during non-deployment.

Delivery of and access to mental health services and supports varies depending on the state in which a child or youth with mental health needs lives. There is a 30 percent difference between the states with the highest and the lowest unmet needs for mental health services (51 percent to 81 percent).

A U.S. Department of Defense news article dated March 23, 2011, by Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press Service, discussed comments made by Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a summit on “Building a Grad Nation: Partnership to Student Success.” In her roundtable discussion at the summit, Mullen said: “Many military children have known only war and the nation has much to learn about the long-term effects that stress will have on this generation. But we do know the effects will be significant.”

“Last year doctors wrote more than 300,000 prescriptions for psychological medications for military youth under the age of 18, and the issue of suicide is ongoing and of great concern. (Note – according to an article in HealthDay, News for Healthier Living, published in December 2013, slightly more than 6 percent of teens in the general population take prescription medications for a mental health condition).

“We’re seeing growing numbers of suicide attempts among family members as a trend as worrisome as the one we are seeing in the ranks.

She cited a Rand Corp. study that found “across all age groups, military children reported significantly higher levels of emotional difficulties than children in the general population.” Additionally, she said, “older children had more difficulty with school and exhibited a higher level of problem behaviors including fighting, while younger children had more symptoms of anxiety and stress.”

She added, “More than 900,000 million children have had a parent deploy multiple times and they have a special kind of fear – they don’t know if their mom or dad will survive the day. It’s a different fear than for children of police officers or fire fighters because it’s a fear that isn’t relieved at night when their parent walks through the door. Their parent won’t walk through the door for a year at a time. For some kids, their parent will never walk through the door again.”

Mullen asked the audience to imagine a life with the added worry of receiving a knock on the door with the worst news imaginable, and “no one on either side of the classroom, let alone the neighborhood, understands. These are the challenges I ask you to consider. These are the problems I ask you to solve and the shoes I ask you to walk in, if only for a few days.”

In an article published in the journal Pediatrics in May 2013, titled “Clinical Report: Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in US Military Families,” authors Benjamin S. Siegel and Beth Ellen Davis, said: “More than 50 percent of military children receive their health and mental health care from non-military providers outside the gates of military installations, especially children of activated service members of the National Guard and Reserve.” The article went on to discuss how to help non-military medical providers understand the unique stresses inherent in military life.

Learn more about Willow Springs Center’s military family mental health resources.

Article on “Teens with Deployed Family Member Face Greater Risk of Depression,” by Traci Pederson, associate news editor; reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D., on 11/30/13. From

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