A Staggering Percentage of Military Kids Have Mental Health Issues—Will This Simple Fix Help?

Adding a check box to school enrollment forms could connect them to resources.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Remember those middle and high school days when you'd stress out about whether the boy or girl you liked liked you back, and if you were going to pass that big science test? Add to that worrying that your parent or guardian is going to come home from Afghanistan in a body bag. Add the stress of living with your dad who's back from Iraq whose depression affects the entire family. That's what kids growing up in military families are dealing with, and some of them are breaking under the stress.

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that kids from military families have significant mental health challenges. About 30 percent of "participants reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 weeks during the past 12 months," while nearly one in four reported having considered suicide.

Ron Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, one of the study's coauthors, says the study found that although the majority of military kids are doing well (considering the circumstances), for the ones who aren't, the isolation and invisibility they experience has a profound negative effect.

There are significant differences between kids who attend schools either on or near military bases and those enrolled in regular public school districts. At a base school, because the staff is connected to the military, there's a better understanding of the issues, and staff members know how to access resources.

"The teacher, the principal, and the community get what they're going through, understand what they need, and provide all the supports," says Astor. But only a fraction of military kids—about 86,000—attend a base-associated school.

In comparison, says Astor, depending on the year, there are 1 million to 1.3 million kids enrolled in public schools whose parents are active-duty military, reserve, or veterans. "The civilian principal and teachers don't know that they're even there," he says. "It could be their parent's seventh deployment, and it could be their [family's] 10th move, and the teacher or principal will just see academic or behavioral problems."

Of particular concern, says Astor, are the children of veterans. Because the Department of Veterans Affairs limits the kind of benefits available to dependents, only the veteran is eligible for mental health help through the military. Even that is hard to come by. So "if their kid comes in suicidal or has other issues—primarily because of the separation and deployment of the war"—they don't get VA services, says Astor.

Now that the troops are coming home "we're going to have a lot more veteran kids and their families" in schools, says Astor, but with less than 1 percent of Americans having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, "it's not even on most of our radars."

"They’re just invisible. They're not appreciated," says Astor. "Your family goes through all this, and it seems like it doesn't matter. That can be harmful."

Astor is also a part of USC's Building Capacity project, which has studied more than 30,000 high school students in eight California school districts. While the project has developed free downloadable resource booklets for parents, teachers, and students, it is also working with the Military Child Education Coalition, the Department of Defense, and other military organizations to promote a common sense way to bring these kids out of the shadows: putting an identifying check box on school enrollment and emergency contact forms that asks if a parent or guardian is active-duty military, in the reserves, or a veteran.

That can help school districts and VA know where military families and communities are concentrated and funnel resources to them. Last year the Los Angeles Unified School District became the first district in the nation to take this step.

Although most Americans might not think of Los Angeles as a city with high numbers of military kids, Astor says because of the school district's large size—nearly 700,000 K–12 students are enrolled—the number of military kids is significant. Districts can get "military impact aid," which is extra funding that can go to helping kids who need it.

Astor is clear, however, that these students don't just need more services. It's about creating welcoming communities and schools too.

"What we learned from World War II is that even when you had really large numbers of people coming back, they came back to hospitable environments that understood what they went through, and there was a GI Bill, and everyone was getting them jobs," says Astor. That military generation did better because they had the support of the community behind them. If we want this generation to succeed, we need to step up and give them that same kind of support.