Published: June 21, 2021
In the last few years, mental health within the military community has importantly been at the forefront of our conversations. The challenges of military life—the deployments, frequent moves, and overall unpredictability—don’t only create stress for service members and spouses. Military kids feel the impacts as well. While we often recognize military children for their resilience and independence, and celebrate their strength, we need to be sure we aren’t failing to also recognize and normalize the mental health challenges this life can bring.
Just as adults have reported increased mental health concerns this past year, so have kids. They’re certainly not immune to feeling the pain of isolation and anxiety from the loss of control. August, a military spouse and mother of two, understands the reality of how challenging military life, on top of the difficulties of this past year, can be for children.
“Military life has become more difficult for my son the older he gets,” August said. “He has been in four schools the first three years of his education. When it comes to deployments, it’s really hard to see my kids miss their daddy and the pain it causes them. His job can also be really stressful and they feel the impact of that sometimes. Since the pandemic, the isolation has been really hard on us as a family.”
August and her family are not alone. More than half of active-duty family respondents to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey (MFLS) reported that COVID-19 had made their own mental health (59%) and their children’s mental health (52%) worse or much worse.
For August, navigating the new normal during the pandemic was especially difficult when it came to her very social school-aged son. “When school closed, my son really struggled,” she shared. “Not being able to see his friends, not having that social interaction, he has really suffered. He also had a really tough time with virtual learning. He started having anxiety attacks being on camera having to do Zoom class. He was convinced he couldn’t learn and we just couldn’t watch him deteriorate emotionally anymore. Ultimately, we decided to pull him and start homeschooling.” Many other military families did the same; while 8% of active-duty family respondents to the 2020 MFLS reported they homeschooled their oldest child during the 2019-2020 school year, that number jumped to 13% for the 2020-2021 school year.
But that decision comes with its own set of challenges. For August’s son, the switch meant an increased feeling of isolation with less interaction with peers. And, like so many parents, the switch to homeschooling has placed a fair amount of stress on August as well. As someone who never thought she’d consider homeschooling, she has found herself trying to figure out first grade math while worrying about teaching her son enough to ensure he doesn’t fall behind his peers. As a result, August has hit the pause button on her job search so she could focus on managing her son’s education. Many of her fellow military spouses have done the same. Over a third (36%) of active-duty spouse respondents to the 2020 MFLS reported they are not working because they homeschool or supervise virtual education for their child(ren).
As a military family, August has also found herself navigating additional challenges. “Our son had an IEP for speech and occupational therapy,” August shared. “With this change our son has lost his services. Now my husband is up for orders and we will be moving again, This time halfway through the next school year. Now we have to figure out if schools will be open in our new location, if we should get our son enrolled for in person classes again, and if we can get services set up for him. I’m worried about him being behind and I feel like I’m letting him down. This is scary for me as a parent because I know my child is smart and I don’t want his love of learning to die.”
As a parent, nothing is more important than your children. Their mental well-being, their happiness, is the driving factor behind every decision you make. And for service members, if they feel like their children are suffering because of the impacts of their career, they’ll start considering the alternatives. In fact, over a third (38%) of active-duty service member respondents to the 2020 MFLS reported that “concerns about the impact of military life on my family” was a reason they would choose to leave military service, making it the most common reason. If we can’t retain talented service members because of a lack of support for families, then the mission readiness of the military as a whole suffers.
Therefore, we need to do more to support our military children—not only by recognizing and identifying their mental health struggles, but also providing access to quality care. Right now, according to the MFLS, only half (51%) of active-duty family respondents with children feel they can access high-quality mental health care for their child(ren). That percentage being anything less than 100 means we have work to do.
Fortunately, military families like August’s are stepping forward to share their stories. And military and civilian leaders are listening and acting. Their commitment to moving the needle to create positive change for military children is so important. In the next hour, we’ll hear from those leaders as they react to the data and stories highlighted in the 2020 survey after such a difficult year.
Blue Star Families is here to help military families like August’s as they manage the unique challenges associated with this life. We’re shining a light on what families are dealing with and bringing those stories forward to help create lasting, positive change. Learn more about all the ways we are working to support you by visiting www.bluestarfam.org.