From the Homefront: Military kids and mental health – Know the warning signs

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

The Coast Guard Cutter Haddock returns to the pier July 3, 2016, at its homeport at Coast Guard Sector San Diego as the crew's loved ones look on. Haddock was in San Francisco for a 46-day dry dock period. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Joel Guzman.

The Coast Guard Cutter Haddock returns to the pier July 3, 2016, at its homeport at Coast Guard Sector San Diego as the crew’s loved ones look on. Haddock was in San Francisco for a 46-day dry dock period. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Joel Guzman.

Written by Shelley Kimball

While military kids can be incredibly resilient, sometimes they need some extra help in navigating the emotional upheaval they experience.

Several studies in recent years have shown that military kids have a higher risk of mental health issues and depression than children in civilian households. (Some examples of these studies are here, here, and here.)

As we wrap up the Month of the Military Child, a military expert in psychology, and a mother of two children herself, offers insight into why there is an increase in depression and how to respond to it.

The reason for the increase in mental health issues may be built into the lifestyle.

“Military kids face more adverse life events,” said Maj. Demietrice Pittman, a clinical psychologist and associate director for Psychological Health Clinical Center, a component of the Defense Centers of Excellence.

Maj. Demietrice Pittman, clinical psychologist and associate director for Psychological Health Clinical Center, a component of the Defense Centers of Excellence

Maj. Demietrice Pittman, clinical psychologist and associate director for Psychological Health Clinical Center, a component of the Defense Centers of Excellence

Pittman said that the part of military life that make it unpredictable – moving, separations, transitions – are the contributing factors to higher incidences of depression or other mental health issues.

But there is a balance to that increased risk, she said, because military kids also have a higher level of resilience.

Spotting symptoms of depression in kids may be a little different than what one sees in adults, Pittman said. Look out for things like sleep changes or changes in appetite, she said.

“Also in children, you tend to get irritability, acting out behaviors,” she said. “That is a little different than how you would see depression in adults.”

Other potential symptoms might be frequent sadness or crying, a decreased interest in favored activities, low energy, hopelessness, social isolation, or poor concentration.

Recognize, too, that kids’ ages may dictate different responses to depression. For example, teenagers might act out more or experiment with substance abuse or other risky behaviors, but younger children might experience pain or illness.

“We tend to see vague physical complaints because they can’t express themselves,” she said.

Sometimes these symptoms can be fleeting, or related specifically to an event like a move, Pittman said, and they may blow over as the event subsides.

Pittman said she recommends parents seek out online resources to help open up a dialogue with kids. She said two that she finds especially helpful are Military Kids Connect, a Department of Defense site that has interactive modules for military kids of a range of ages, or Sesame Street’s site devoted to younger military kids.

For example, an online interactive Stress Detective helps kids figure out why they are reacting to stress in physical ways. A similar program for smaller kids is the Mood Monster, from Sesame Street.

Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Statham, a crew member aboard the Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick, greets his family after the Fast Response Cutter and crew arrived at its new homeport during a homecoming ceremony at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan in Ketchikan, Alaska, March 17, 2017. Cutter John McCormick was delivered to the Coast Guard in Key West, Florida, in December 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Statham, a crew member aboard the Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick, greets his family after the Fast Response Cutter and crew arrived at its new homeport during a homecoming ceremony at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan in Ketchikan, Alaska, March 17, 2017. Cutter John McCormick was delivered to the Coast Guard in Key West, Florida, in December 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“Talk with your children. Ask questions about what is going on, how are they feeling? What are the things going on that are causing that depressed mood?” Pittman said.

But if the symptoms don’t seem to let up, then it may be time to seek outside help.

“If those symptoms persist in more days than not in a two-week period, that is something to be concerned about,” Pittman said.

The next step is calling the Tricare Nurse Advice Line at 1-800-TRICARE (874-2273), or getting an appointment with a healthcare provider, she said.

Tricare covers mental healthcare for kids. In fact, there have been recent upgrades for mental healthcare coverage. The rates you pay and the coverage available will depend on your military status and the plan you have, and this chart breaks it down.

The key to being the best support system for kids is remaining aware of changes in their demeanor, keeping the lines of communication open, researching, and knowing where to go for outside help.

“The big message is for the family members to talk to their children and then seek out those resources,” she said.

Resources:

CG Support: Call (855) CG SUPRT (247-8778) or go online for assistance finding mental health support.

Sesame Street for Military Families: This site provides several interactive ways to help military kids communicate about the obstacles they face, like deployment or moving.

Military Kids Connect: This Department of Defense site includes resources for teens and tweens, as well as the smaller set. The interactive modules and videos might be especially accessible for kids.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: This site has fact sheets and lists of symptoms, as well as information in languages other than English.

Crisis Lines: Tricare developed a list of hotlines for a variety of mental health needs.

Stories like this: Recently, we explained how to get mental healthcare (including the amendments to Tricare coverage), suicide prevention for military family members, or helping military kids understand emergencies.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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