WASHINGTON — A growing number of children in military families stationed in Europe are being diagnosed with mental health problems, but U.S. health care officials there don’t yet know whether the war on terror is to blame.

Col. Gail Williamson, chief of health care operations at the Tricare Europe Office, said the number of military children under 18 diagnosed with mental problems — including stress and trauma disorders — rose from about 150 in 2002 to nearly 300 in 2003, and preliminary 2004 numbers show similarly high levels.

“This is a real concern for us,” she said. “We need to determine if we can relate it to something, and what we can do to help.”

Williamson said that so far, researchers haven’t been able to tell if children of deployed family members make up the largest segment of new patients, or if better screening and information about youth mental illness is the major factor in the increase.

But Col. Charles W. Hoge, who last year authored a major study on troop mental health issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, said it “makes sense” that those children could suffer as a result of deployment, too.

“Families are stressed out, too,” he said. “Our family research effort is not anywhere near what our efforts for soldiers are ... but what we’ve found comparable prevalence rates in mental heath problems of the families.”

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant for the Office of the Surgeon General, said military officials are starting to look more closely at the war’s effects on families, but that in many places — especially bases overseas — proper counseling and therapy is not available.

“The challenge is finding them help in areas where there aren’t those resources,” she said.

Williamson said often the European Tricare facilities do not treat those minors with mental health issues, but refer them to more specialized doctors outside of the military network or back in the States.

An additional survey on postcombat troop mental health is due out this spring. Hoge said Defense Department officials have put extra emphasis on addressing posttraumatic stress disorder and other related issues since his last study, which showed about 15 percent of servicemembers who fought overseas experienced emotional problems.

“I can tell you these rates [of mental issues] are not going down,” he said. “It’s likely that we’ll see an impact from repeated deployment as soldiers are rotated back in, who already have fairly significantly elevated rates of symptoms.”

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