At-risk military teens foreshadow at-risk military future
Special to Stars and Stripes May 13, 2022
Why aren’t parents panicking? Why isn’t this a top story in the media? Why aren’t political, military and healthcare leaders shouting this from the rooftops? Why is there so much apparent apathy for an issue that is crucial to our future?
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement, declaring a National State of Emergency in children’s mental health due to dramatic increases in childhood mental health disorders, mental-health related emergency room visits and suicide attempts. “We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families and their communities,” the statement read, calling for immediate action to solve the crisis.
If the general population of teens are experiencing dramatic increases in mental health problems, what about military teenagers? Does their unpredictable mobile lifestyle with frequent deployments and disruptions put them at even greater risk?
The answer is a resounding yes, according to the 2022 Military Teen Experience Survey (MTES) conducted by the National Military Family Association (NMFA) and Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen. “Military kids look just like any other kid, so you don’t realize what’s happening in their homes and the weight of the responsibilities that they’re carrying. We learned that weight is heavier than we knew,” said Besa Pinchotti, NMFA’s CEO.
The 2022 MTES shows 37% of military teens reported have thoughts of harming themselves or others, and over 90% have “at risk” mental well-being in low to moderate ranges. The report states that the 28% of military teens who scored in the lowest mental well-being range reported having trouble thinking clearly and making decisions. “They also rarely felt optimistic, did not often feel relaxed, and felt disconnected from others,” common experiences associated with depressive symptoms, according to the survey report.
Factors associated with lower mental well-being included being an older teenager, having dual military parents, changing schools more frequently, experiencing more deployments and separations and having thoughts of self harm.
Sadly, 46% of military teens also reported having food insecurities due to military families’ unique financial challenges, compared to only 11% of U.S. households that experience food insecurities. According to the 2022 MTES report, food insecurity is also linked to increased thoughts of self harm and low mental well-being in military teens. “We need to understand more about our military teen’s mental health and well-being, but all of these issues are really interconnected. It’s hard to feel okay when you’re worried about having enough to eat. It’s hard to feel okay when you don’t know if you have access to the care you need,” Pinchotti said.
“Military teens told us they often don’t feel seen or heard,” the 2022 MTES report states. Although “the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY2021) National Defense Authorization Act included a mental health scheduling pilot to help service members and families access the care they need,” they say much more needs to be done by Congress and DoD, including building robust mental health provider networks that accept TRICARE, decreased copays for mental healthcare and removing barriers for military spouses to enter the mental health field.
Military teenagers may feel invisible, but there’s one survey result that should get every American’s attention. Although only 11% of all U.S. teenagers claim that they’ll join the military one day, and although only .7% of Americans actually do, the 2022 MTES showed that more than four times as many military teenagers intend to serve, and many plan to enlist right after high school. With 90% of military teenagers at risk for mental health issues, it is frightening that we might fill the ranks of our future force with military legacies with a history of psychological struggles.
Pinchotti says NMFA and Bloom won’t stop shedding light on these issues. “This isn’t a one and done scenario … We are committed to learning more about our teens’ experiences and working with policy makers for long-term solutions to support our teens of today and, for nearly half of them, the force of tomorrow.”
Read more at themeatandpotatoesoflife.com, and in Lisa’s book, The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org