How parental deployment can affect a child's mental health

Naomi J., 23, and her sister Sophia, 19, spent their entire lives as military children, relocating around the UK depending on where their father was stationed at the time.

According to the latest statistics the estimated number of children with parents serving in the UK Forces was 103,620, with 90,020 under the age of 18. Naomi and Sophia's father has been in the army for the past 20 years. He enlisted when their brother John was only two years old.

“He’s actually in his last two years of service,” says Naomi. “In the army you do 22 years, but you can take up another eight years as a senior soldier if you want.”

Several studies in the UK have discovered correlations between active service and mental health problems in military service personnel. A recent study of 10,000 serving personnel (83% regulars; 27% reservists) discovered lower than expected levels of PTSD. The most often reported mental health concerns among UK armed services members were common mental illnesses and alcohol abuse. For example, overall levels of alcohol misuse were significantly greater than in the general population.

Because of the impact service had on their father, their parents used to split up quite often. “They’ve been together for almost 25 years and married for 19 years,” says Naomi. “It’s a mental thing and used to happen quite often. They got back together but once they were apart for nearly a year.”

“They had one of the biggest break ups when I was 10 and Naomi was 14,” adds Sophia. “Dad’s mental state wasn’t that great and he broke up with mum.”

This was the breakup that affected the family, especially the children, the most. “When dad returned for two weeks they told us about the breakup. I was angry and rebellious,” says Naomi. “I blamed my mum, which I shouldn’t have because we were really close.”

Naomi admits that the situation was extremely difficult for their mother, who just wanted to talk to their father and understand what he’s going through.

“We realised that all the break ups were just a coping mechanism,” she says. “He thought that if he died while he was stationed overseas, our mum wouldn’t be so sad, because he already broke up with her.”

“Hearing our mum cry and asking if she’s alright… She tried to hide it a lot, because she didn’t understand dad’s coping mechanism and the break ups,” Sophie adds. “But he didn't understand either, and it made her even sadder.”

The family got through the challenging times and the parents are now in a good place. “Dad says our mum was the best thing that’s ever happened to him. I don't know how other soldiers handle it alone,” says Naomi.

Most British military people do not have mental health issues while serving or after they leave the service. They do, however, face distinct risks in service, and if they do develop mental health issues, they may require specific treatments and mental health services. Military personnel face the same mental health issues as the general population, yet their experiences during duty and transition to civilian life imply that their mental illness may be triggered by different factors. A significant minority of service personnel and veterans suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The sisters don’t talk much to their father about what happens when he’s in service. “I think he talks about it more with my boyfriend and brother,” says Naomi. “I remember after he came back and we were at a party and a balloon popped. He flinched so fast. It made me really sad.”

Military personnel who have been deployed in war zones or other unstable regions are at an increased risk for developing these disorders and it is recognised that consequences can extend to family members as well, particularly in children, also called military family syndrome, whose parents have been deployed. Before the 1970s, studies that dealt with this matter were rare.

The term “military family syndrome” first came into use after the Vietnam War to describe the behavioural and psychosocial problems of children of deployed parents, as well as the effects of deployment on the relationship between the child and the parent remaining at home. The number of studies of this phenomenon began to rise following the Gulf War in 1990 - 1991, and increased considerably after the terrorist attacks in September 2001.

“PTSD is a sneaky little bastard,” Naomi says. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a soldier. I used to suffer from anxiety,” she says. “I don’t want to blame my dad, I was always very anxious. It got easier as I grew older, but I’ll always worry about him.”

In the UK, the impact of parental deployment frequently has an impact on the emotional health and well-being of service children and young people. As a result they may have a greater need for mental health services.

“I went through a rebellious stage, when we got stationed overseas away from my siblings,” says Sophia, who has a generalised anxiety disorder. “I was getting help in London, but in some countries you can’t have these issues, so when we moved I stopped getting help. The thing is, in some countries they don’t believe in mental illness, so it might have been harder provide the help I needed.”

Sophia also had cognitive therapy as she always has negative thoughts when her father goes away, thinking he will never come back. Her sister however does not think this way, she says she was worried as “it’s hard to process this at a young age”.

“It’s not all bad though,” says Sophia. “Our dad’s job never stopped him from being a great dad.”

“He’s come to the age where he’s the best dad,” says Naomi. “He’s always been great, but he got softer. It’s hard to have your dad deployed when you're a kid and not understanding it, worried if he's going to come back. But growing up and it being over, our family is in a very good place.”

(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.)

What actions do you think we can take to protect army children? Let us know in the comment below!