Military Deployment Stress Seeps to Children

Photo: Study shows children with deployed parents have more behavioral and mental health problems than military children whose parents have not been deployed
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The Hardt family is no rookie to the fold. Korin Hardt, 38, has seen her husband through five year-long military deployments; four of which her three children have also endured. But of the four deployments, Hardt said, the latest one has hit her 9-year-old daughter the hardest.

Hardt's husband, a career army gunner, left for his first tour to Afghanistan in August. Hardt received a call two months later from her daughter's school, saying that Abigail cut herself on the leg with a pair of scissors.

"She said she wanted to know what it felt like," Hardt said.

"Did it hurt," Hardt remembered asking her daughter.

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"Not really," Abigail said.

"Did you hurt?" Hardt asked.

"I always hurt. I miss my dad," Abigail said.

And Abigail is not alone. A study released Monday in the journal Pediatrics suggested that children whose military parents have been deployed are more likely to suffer from behavioral or mental health disorders.

"Military deployment doesn't just affect the soldier, but it's the family back home. Not just the spouse but children, too," said Dr. Gregory Gorman, a military-based commander and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and lead author of the study.

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"We hear this anecdotally, but now medical records show that it's true."

Gorman and his colleagues tracked health claim records during 2006 and 2007 of nearly 650,000 children ages 3 to 8 and found that those with a parent deployed within the two years had an 11 percent higher rate of clinic visits because of mental health or behavioral issues than military children whose parents were not deployed. Researchers also noted the rate of visits increased as the child grew older.

Previous studies have looked at emotional and behavioral changes during one point in time. This is the first study of its kind to track children of all military branches over time, Gorman said.

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During her father's most recent deployment, Abigail was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, sensory processing disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder, commonly known as ADHD. She is taking medication to help curb her symptoms.

But doctors have upped Abigail's prescription for Zoloft -- an antidepressant -- to 200 milligrams since August, the highest dosage for a child her age.

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"Bedtime is the worst," Hardt said, adding that Abigail worries her father won't come home. "That's the time I think when she's not busy, so she has time to think about it."

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Gorman's study also suggested that children with deployed fathers were more likely to face problems than those with deployed mothers. But families where the father was deployed may have been more likely to enroll in the military health insurance program Tricare, which provided the data for the research, according to Dr. Beth Ellen Davis, retired colonel and pediatrician at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., and author of the study's accompanying editorial.

"On the basis of my clinical experience, I would have as much (if not more) concern about child MH [mental health] and behavioral problems in single AD [active duty] parent and female deployed-service-member households," Davis wrote in her editorial.

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