Two Million Military Children Are At Risk For Mental Health Issues, But Coverage Is Scarce

Over 2 million U.S. children are at risk for mental health problems related to a loved one being deployed for active duty warfare in the past decade. But these kids’ access to mental health services remains scarce, underscoring a major hole in the American medical system.

According to a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), of the 60 percent of active duty military personnel who are married, 44 percent have children — most of whom are born at a younger age than civilian American families. Pediatricians are concerned that these children are exposed to stressful environments at a greater rate than others. That’s partly due to their separation from family members during wartime — but much of it also concerns the mental health problems experienced by their military family members.

In the five years after the commencement of the Iraq war in 2003, the number of U.S. military suicides ballooned by 80 percent, reaching a record high in January 2013. AAP’s report finds that over 30 percent of returning soldiers from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have encountered serious mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

While that may not be surprising for soldiers exposed to harmful environments, what’s less obvious is the effect that such disorders can have on children — especially the relatively young children of current active duty military and veterans. A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that suicide can be “contagious” among teenagers — and the younger the child, the more prominent the effect. According to the AAP’s findings, “one in four children of active-duty service members experience symptoms of depression, one in two report trouble sleeping, and about one in three children of active-duty military personnel experience excessive worrying.”

Unfortunately, accessing adequate care is difficult for military families. The AAP study finds that over 50 percent of military children receive their mental health care outside of the military health system — and the American private mental health system is decidedly broken.

Even when families have access to care through their military benefits, the waiting line is arduous. The Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Department has been facing a backlog of close to one million claims for returning veterans and their dependents. That’s forced states such as New Mexico to implement extraordinary measures such as providing returning veterans with one year of free mental health services. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only 21 percent of children living with mental disorders receive treatment due to a shortage of pediatric specialists and psychiatrists.

Affordable and accessible mental health services are few and far between — especially when juxtaposed against the vast number of veterans returning from the waning Afghan and Iraq wars. For young military children, that’s particularly distressing in the long-term, since mental disorders formed in youth have long-lasting medical and financial consequences.