A new investigation into the impact of parental deployment on mental health has revealed that children who had at least one parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan were diagnosed with more psychological problems than children whose parents never served in the military.

Led by Alyssa J. Mansfield, Ph.D., MPH, a team of researchers analyzed the data of 307,520 children, aged 5 to 17 years old, who had at least one parent actively serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The scientists obtained the outpatient data from military facilities and military health insurance records from 2003-2006 and classified children's mental health diagnoses on a scale utilizing the International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision.

Issues with Anxiety and Depression Increase When a Parent is Deployed

Results showed that 16.7% of the children with an active-duty parent had at least one mental health diagnosis, with the most common conditions involving stress, depression, behavioral problems, anxiety and sleep disorders. The psychological problems increased as parental time in the military increased, with children becoming more emotionally affected with prolonged parental deployment. Earlier research showed similar findings among military spouses. Also, more problems were noted in older children, aged 13 to 17, and among boys.

Also, compared to children without parental deployment, children whose parents were deployed represented an excess of 6579 mental health diagnoses.

The research, published online in the July 2011 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is among the first to show the effect of military engagement on the mental health of children of deployed soldiers in today's present conflicts in particular.

Active-Duty Parents Need to Be Aware

Researchers urged healthcare providers to identify patients whose parents are presently deployed or recently served and to conduct basic mental health screenings within this population to provide timely interventions and follow up.

Despite the findings, Mansfield did note that most of the children with parents in OIF or OEF were coping well and did not show any mental health diagnoses in their medical records; she suggested that scientists could glean valuable information about effective coping mechanisms from those families.

According to Stephen J. Cozza, MD, of the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., there were 1.2 million children with parents on combat duty as of 2009, with 44% of active duty members having children, and 43% of Reserve and National Guard members have children as well.

In the accompanying commentary on the study, Cozza suggested the findings be used to increase national awareness of the problem. Since issues sometimes arise later and military children are likely to receive outside care, he also recommended that civilian healthcare professionals pay particular attention to children of active service members as their needs are unique.

In addition to the emotional consequences of being separated from a parent during military deployment, children's psychological distress stems from fear of parental harm and death from war.

Another study recently published showed similar findings, revealing that children with parents serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had a 10% increased risk of being hospitalized for a psychiatric condition compared to their counterparts whose parents were not deployed.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: July 12, 2016