FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Elena Dorsey's depression started when her dad joined the Army.
He went away to train, and she stopped sleeping or eating. When his assignment took the family from Oregon to North Carolina, Elena's depression deepened. Her father seemed like a different man than before, and all of her friends lived on the other side of the country.
A parachute accident nearly cost Elena's father his life and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. She could hardly recognize her dad anymore. The family crumbled under the weight of the stress.
"We wanted to help him, but he pushed us away every time," Elena, now a senior at Westover High School, said through tears. "The man I grew up with and knew was always going to be there for me was never there."
Some days, suicide seemed like the best answer.
Elena - now president of a school program to welcome new students - shared her story Friday at a conference focused on the mental health of service members and their families.
Elena's not alone. Children of military members are 2 1/2times more likely to develop psychological problems than other children in the United States, according to a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
On the second day of the third annual Forward March Conference, held at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, experts urged the audience of about 200 counselors, psychologists and others to try to better understand what makes military families unique.
The extreme stress of deploying to war trickles down and affects soldiers' spouses and children.
That family stress - which can be compounded by financial and marital problems - is what makes military children more likely to have problems, said Mark Marquez, a social work professor at Fayetteville State University.
"How many kids go to school every day with the true possibility ... of one of their loved ones being killed that day?" asked Marquez, who spoke at the conference less than two weeks after his son was killed in Afghanistan. "You (have to) recognize these kids aren't crazy, but they've got so much going on in their heads."
Marquez said most problems show up as adjustment disorders, depression and sleeping problems.
Mark Pisano, a school psychologist at Fort Bragg, said it is important to try to understand the effects of military life when dealing with struggling children and families. The stress of having a deployed parent can cause children's grades to drop as they stop paying attention or start misbehaving at school. The behavior may look similar to children who have attention deficit disorder, he said.
"They're not an attention deficit disorder child; they're struggling through a deployment," Pisano said. "How important is school to a youngster whose dad just got deployed, or whose mom just got deployed? I don't think it's at the top of the list."
Dr. Harold Kudler, a PTSD expert at Duke University, said counselors train their staff in basic military language and begin routinely asking all patients if they are part of a military family and take that into account when treating them.
"Flag it on the chart, because when they come in and tell you they're having bad dreams, you want to remember they're a military person," Kudler said. "And if a child isn't doing well, ask how the parents are doing."
The two-day Forward March Conference brought together military and civilian leaders to discuss the mental health challenges that will face the Fort Bragg and Fayetteville communities. Soldiers and their families have faced a decade-long cycle of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"War affects the health of every one of us in this room, shaping our perspective on daily events and altering our responses to them," said Col. Steven Brewster, commander of Womack Army Medical Center. "The challenge for all of us lies in recognizing those who need help."