NEW YORK — Teens and preteens with a parent deployed in the military may be more likely to binge drink or misuse prescription drugs, according to a new study.
Previous studies have found that with a parent's multiple deployments come higher levels of depression and more thoughts of suicide among children. But the new study is the first to focus on alcohol and drug use, senior author Stephan Arndt told Reuters Health.
"What was sort of surprising to me was that I had expected those effects for high school (students), but we saw it in sixth graders too," said Arndt, a psychiatry researcher at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Arndt and his colleagues analyzed statewide survey data from Iowa students in 2010, when 1.2 million American children had a parent in the active duty military. They compared data from 1,700 kids of deployed parents and 57,000 kids from non-military families, including sixth, eighth and 11th graders.
Twelve percent of sixth graders with a deployed parent had tried alcohol and seven percent had consumed five or more drinks in one sitting, compared to four and two percent of children of non-military parents, respectively.
Among eleventh graders, 29 percent of military children had binge drank in the past month and 15 percent had smoked pot, compared to 22 percent and 10 percent of non-military kids.
Fifteen percent of all kids and teens in the deployed-parent group compared to seven percent of other youth had misused prescription drugs in the past month, the researchers reported in the journal Addiction.
"This research just adds further to the mounting evidence that there are negative mental health effects on children associated with parental military deployment," Dr. Timothy Shope, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, told Reuters Health by email.
The study looked at only one point in time and did not track the kids before and after their parents were deployed - so the researchers can't say for certain that deployment caused risky behaviors, according to Dr. Timothy Roberts, an adolescent medicine specialist at Naval Medical Center San Diego, who was not involved in the study.
There are several long-term studies of military children funded by the U.S. government going on now that will yield more definitive results, Roberts told Reuters Health in an email.
This study primarily included Army Reserve and National Guard families in Iowa, with parents who would have worked civilian jobs before deployment and whose families didn't live on military bases. Those children may be most vulnerable to the upheaval of deployment, noted Shope, who served for 21 years in the Navy before retiring in 2011.
On bases, full-time active duty military live near built-in support systems as well as other military families who look out for each other during deployment, but Army Reserve and National Guard families often don't have those resources, Shope said.
"I think community service agencies, military service agencies and schools should put something in place that adds support to the children" and the rest of the family left behind, Arndt said.