Military Kids Face Unique Challenges to Their Mental Health
I still feel rootless and restless, stir crazy and uncomfortable with people knowing me for too long.
Charlie Schuck / Getty
I was a pro at being the new kid. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was living in my sixth home, so I had plenty of practice in the politics of fitting in. Even as an awkward ginger in middle school, I managed. Growing up in the military meant a lot of my childhood was spent in cycles of packing and unpacking boxes. High mobility is part and parcel for military kids, who move an average of six to nine times from kindergarten to high school. Compared to the general public, that’s three times as often as civilian children. So for me, leaving was as natural as the tide ebb.
And I did a lot of it. I left my grandma in my hometown, BFFs in different hemispheres, I even left my first boyfriend in fifth grade without even telling him I was moving (sorry Steven, I’ve been cheating on you with the man I married six years ago).
All that relocating can come with extraordinary benefits. My skin freckled in the Pacific Islands, I tasted Swiss chocolate in the Alps while living in Europe, and my stomach leapt at the peak of world’s tallest roller coaster (at the time) in the Nevada desert. Not to mention the languages, cultures, and people I became familiar with all over the world. There are a host of unique experiences that make the military life worthwhile and beneficial for children.
For many kids, the military experience cultivates resilience and adaptability. “I found that the military teenagers are used to diversity, can handle change well, [are] quick-thinkers, develop an early ability to adapt to many situations, and are more adept at these skills than other teens,” says Christi Garner, a Virginia-based family therapist who has worked around the world with military families dealing with the stressors of moving and deployments.
That being said, repeated upheaval is not always without consequences. A person’s mental state doesn’t always make it through the move as neatly as the packed boxes. Military or not, frequent moves during adolescence have been linked to fewer quality relationships in adulthood and lower feelings of well-being and life quality. Recently, the Army’s director of psychological health indicated that one in five Army kids would need mental health treatment by the time they’re 16 years old. The exact causes aren’t definitively known. Nevertheless, the transience and deployment rate that distinguish military life are notable stressors.
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A study from 2015, published in JAMA pediatrics, found that children raised in the military are more likely to smoke, carry a weapon to school, drink alcohol, use drugs, and be involved in physically violent incidents than kids not associated with the military. More alarming still, odds of suicidal ideation for kids with multiple deployed family members increase 34 percent when compared to a military child with no deployment experience.
The bulk of my military childhood was lived pre-9/11. I remember my dad deploying once for a 4-month stint in the 90s. That’s far different from the longer, more frequent, and more hazardous post-9/11 wartime deployment rate. A RAND analysis published in 2018 found that 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments from 9/11 to 2015.
Rather than pathologizing military families, Garner says that “military needs to look through the lens of mental wellness and promote programs and time off regardless of having a high needs or low needs child.” To her point, every kid has a different threshold for coping with stressors. Proper support for military children is elusive because there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer; it requires a multi-faceted approach and a general de-stigmatizing of mental health help.
The military has made a genuine effort to provide access to free programs that develop resilience and wellness. But interaction with these programs remains an issue. Now more than ever, military families are moving off base and living in the civilian community. Around 80 percent of kids in the military attend a public school not associated with the Department of Defense (DoD), meaning their peers, guidance counselors, and teachers may be wholly unfamiliar with their challenges.
“Teachers and counselors, who see these children every day, are also excellently positioned to be vigilant if a military-connected youth is exhibiting signs or symptoms of increased stress, a mental health condition, substance use etc.,” says Katherine Sullivan, professor at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. “Since we know the rates of adverse outcomes are higher in this population, a referral from a teacher or school counselor to a doctor or a mental health provider could be critical to ensuring a child gets the support they need.”
With higher levels of military integration into civilian communities, perhaps the risk gap for military kids can begin to close by strengthening the bridges of understanding between the military and civilian communities. The recent implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) may help forge these relationships. Under this act, military children are assigned a military student identifier, which makes administrators aware that some of the students walking the halls are connected to the military—something they might have never known otherwise. The act was just implemented for the 2017–2018 school year, so its benefits are yet to be seen.
Military kids are frequently praised for their resilience, and rightfully so. But for many, the path to building that resilience is paved with anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and depression. Just as their strengths are celebrated, their needs deserve serious, resourceful attention. An integrated approach from DoD and the civilian communities inhabited by military kids is necessary to meet the needs of the modern military child.
Sullivan’s upcoming research findings stress the importance of communal support for at-risk military families. “When families are not able to muster sufficient resources to cope with risks on their own, we have an obligation, both within the military community and in the broader civilian community, to provide these resources in order to avoid poor outcomes.” For the perpetual new kids, a school environment receptive to the military lifestyle may help them make the move farther from risk and closer to stability.
As good as I was at being the new kid and making friends, I sucked at keeping them, and that followed me into adulthood. Most of my friendships are finite, with a cap of about two years. I still feel rootless and restless, stir crazy and uncomfortable with people knowing me for too long. Every so often, a deep compulsion for change nags me to husk off the familiar in favor of the new and unknown. So it made sense for me to enlist. I was already comfortable with military culture, I understood it more than the place I was born.
I don’t regret a second of my military childhood. The more we can understand the impact a military lifestyle can have on adolescents, however, the more I, and maybe other military brats—the ones who are foreigners in their hometowns and don’t know a single person from their childhood—can make a little more sense of our lives beyond the military.
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