Study: More Mental Health Issues Among Children Of Deployed Parents

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While the war in Iraq is winding down, the mission is Afghanistan continues. And that means U.S. troops continue to be called up for duty. Long and repeated deployments are tough on families. WOSU gives a look at how children are affected when their parents go overseas.

There has been a lot of talk about the effects war has on troops post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, depression just to name a few. And we hear about the toll it takes on the spouse and the marriage. Seldom mentioned are the effects on the children. A study published this month in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found children have more mental and behavioral problems when their parents go to war. Researchers found behavioral and stress disorders each increased by nearly 20 percent. And visits to mental health professionals increased by 11 percent.

Celina Dugas’ husband, Peter, is serving in Afghanistan. He’s in the Air Force and stationed at Bagram Airfield.

He’s been gone since May, it’s his third deployment. They have four children: Nicolas who’s eight, Devin who’s five and one-year-old twins.

Despite caring for infants, Dugas said this deployment has been the easiest. But easy is relative.

“It hasn’t gone without a lot of tears, and you know. He’s missed anniversaries and their birthdays. And you know he got a two week notice roughly when he found out he was leaving and from the time he had to be gone. We had things planned, and thought we were going to be doing this, that for the summer so everything pretty much changed. But we pretty much try to keep on trucking,” Dugas said.

Dugas said the first six or eight weeks were the toughest.

“I think the first probably one to two months where everyone’s kind of shaky and they cry and do things like that,” she said.

Although the study in “Pediatrics” indicated a significant increase in worry and conduct problems among children of deployed parents, Dugas said there has been little of that in her household. She said they try to stay busy with things like with piano lessons and Boy Scouts. But the older children, Nicolas and Devin, do miss out.

“I think for the most part they probably have suffered the most out of that, not having my husband around. And they ask for things like, like can we play the science set. Well that’s kind of Daddy’s job. I don’t know anything about that kind of stuff, so,” Dugas said.

Regina Shillinglaw is a clinical psychologist who specializes in deployment psychology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. She helps train health providers who will work with service members.

Officials at Wright-Patt say it has not seen an increase in the number of children seeking mental health services. But Shillinglaw said the base offers various mental health services for children of deployed parents. And what it cannot offer, it gives referrals to private doctors.

“It can be stressful. Most of the time children adapt well and that’s what we see the majority of the time. But it can place a strain just in terms of an absent parent,” Shillinglaw said.

Shillinglaw said military families tend to be quite resilient. They’re used to moving a lot and to the other changes that come along with a military lifestyle. But she adds when it comes to deployment, research shows a child will adapt better when the person taking care of them is in a good mental place.

“The better the mental health of that person the better the child’s adjustment , so that’s an important finding in a sense that we can help support the stateside caregiver, whether that be the parent or not, as much as we can to help the child’s functioning,” she said.

Celina Dugas, whose husband is in Afghanistan, has maintained a positive attitude through the six-month-long deployment.

“He was upset, and so it was kind of one of those things where I just had to, for the first time be the one to say we’ll be OK, we’ll manage,” Dugas said.

Dugas said she’s continued to work and has tried to maintain contact with her husband. Her son, Nicolas, said that’s where technology helps.

“We talk to him on Skype, like where we see each other on like the computer. And talk about what happened. What do you tell your dad when you see him? Hey, Dad. I love you,” Nicolas said.

Andrea McBride, a Master Sergeant in the Air Force, is no stranger to deployment either. She had to leave her three girls, Michelle, Mara and Emily in 2007 when she went to Iraq. Her youngest child, Emily, was only two. She came up with a novel way to help her children.

“Mara, the middle one, she was probably a little more tore up about it. Michelle understood. So I put a jar and wrote little things that I would say to her in the jar. And I said when you miss Mommy you just pull out like a little love note kind of thing,” McBride said.

And Mara did go to the love note jar sometimes.

“When I missed her, and I wanted her to come back. Did you worry about Mom? Yeah.” While deployments are supposed to the tough part, and homecomings celebratory, McBride found her return put some strain on her youngest child, Emily.

“She was definitely a daddy’s girl at that time. She got used to him being around. So it took a while to get her back adjusted to me,” McBride said.

The study in “Pediatrics” notes deployments can affect future development. Researchers say similar effects have been shown in children whose parents divorce or are incarcerated. But Shillinglaw would not speculate on what the lasting impact the current wars will have on children like Emily and Nicolas.

“It’s too early in this situation to know how are these children who are you know two, five, ten and twelve years old, how are they going to be doing in ten, 15, 20 years,” she said.

Celina Dugas’ husband is expected back from Afghanistan in early December just in time for his son’s sixth birthday. Andrea McBride said she’s looking to deploy to Afghanistan sometime next year.