TACOMA, Wash. — An adolescent whose parent is sent on military deployments is more likely to have suicidal thoughts and feel depressed than a child of civilians, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
The report drew on a 2008 mental health survey distributed in schools in Washington state. It's believed to be one of the broadest studies directly comparing military teens with the children of civilians since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
Its lead author hopes it will lead to increased awareness about stresses on military children and motivate new efforts to help teens.
"It's really time to focus on the children that are left behind," said Sarah Reed, whose report was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
More than 10,600 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students filled out the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey. The state distributes the survey every two years.
The 2008 survey was the first to ask questions about whether a child's parent had deployed in the previous six years. At the time, Washington's population included more than 60,000 active-duty service members, the sixth most in the country.
Researchers say boys are most sensitive to the stress of a parent's deployment. For example:
• Forty-four percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys who reported having a parent serving in uniform overseas felt they had a low quality of life. Among civilian families, 20 percent of boys in those age groups reported a low quality of life.
• Thirty percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys with a deployed parent felt depressed, compared with 20 percent of boys in civilian families.
• Twenty-six percent of 10th- and 12th-grade boys with a deployed parent reported suicidal thoughts, whereas 14 percent of boys in civilian families did.
• High school girls whose parent had deployed overseas also were more likely to report depression, but the differences were not as pronounced.
Reed's report did not try to answer why boys would show more signs of distress, but it cited other studies that suggested boys might struggle to connect emotionally with an absent parent and that they might engage in more high-risk behaviors.