Children of active-duty military personnel make 18% more trips to the doctor for behavioral problems and 19% more visits for stress disorders when a military parent is deployed compared with when the parent is home, according to a study of children ages 3 to 8 in today's Pediatrics.
Those increases are even more striking given that the overall number of doctors' visits declined 11% during deployment, perhaps because the lone parent at home was so busy, says study author Gregory Gorman, who analyzed the medical records of nearly 643,000 children and 443,000 parents from 2006 to 2007.
Gorman, a pediatrician with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., says military doctors are usually aware of the burden on such children, but he hopes more civilian doctors, who care for two-thirds of kids in military families, will find out if a parent is deployed and ask how families are coping.
Research shows that kids of enlisted Army soldiers are more likely to suffer maltreatment when a parent is in combat and that Army wives are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders or other mental health conditions when their husbands are deployed.
The new study may actually underestimate the psychological stress on military families because it included all branches of the service, instead of concentrating on the Army and Marines, who have done most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Deborah Gibbs of RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., author of the maltreatment study. The new study also excludes the Reserves and National Guard, some of whose members have completed multiple tours of duty.
"Most military families cope astonishingly well," Gibbs says. But "the National Guard and Reserve families have all the same stresses but none of the support that active-duty families have."