LOS ANGELES — Teenagers with family members in the military were more likely to contemplate suicide if their relatives were deployed overseas multiple times, according to researchers from the University of Southern California.
After analyzing survey data from 14,299 secondary school students in California — including more than 1,900 with parents or siblings in the military — the researchers found a link between a family member’s deployment history and a variety of mental health problems, including “suicidal ideation,” or thoughts about suicide.
Their study, published online Monday by the Journal of Adolescent Health, joins a growing body of evidence that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a hefty toll on children in military families.
“The cost of military deployment goes well beyond money and our soldiers’ lives,” said Stephan Arndt, a University of Iowa psychologist who was not involved in the study. His work has found elevated rates of drug and alcohol use among children whose parents were currently or recently deployed.
Most research on the mental health of military children has focused on those who are already receiving treatment or attending special summer camps. Those kinds of studies don’t allow experts to estimate the rates of psychiatric problems among all military children or make comparisons with other children.
So the USC team tried a different approach.
The researchers piggybacked on a statewide health survey of public school students in 2011 and added questions for seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in four Southern California school districts — all near military bases — about the military status and deployment histories of their parents and siblings.
Students with close relatives serving in the military were no more likely to suffer mental health problems than students with no relatives on active duty, the team found. The key factor was how many times a parent or sibling — currently serving or not — had been deployed during the previous decade.
Even among students whose relatives had never deployed — most often because they had never been in the military — researchers found surprisingly high rates of mental health problems: 29 percent reported extended periods of feeling sad or hopeless during the previous year; and 22 percent had symptoms of depression in the previous month.
A single deployment in the 10-year period raised those rates to 35 percent and 24 percent, respectively. More than one deployment pushed them even higher, to 38 percent and 28 percent. All of those changes were statistically significant, meaning they were too large to attribute to chance, according to the study.
The ninth- and 11th-graders who took the survey were also asked whether they had seriously considered suicide in the previous year. The researchers found that 18 percent of the teens whose relatives had never deployed answered yes, along with 23 percent of those whose relatives had been deployed once and 25 percent of those whose relatives had deployed more than once. Only the difference between 18 percent and 25 percent was large enough to be considered statistically significant, the team reported.
“There’s a cumulative effect of deployment,” said study leader Julie Cederbaum, a professor at the USC School of Social Work.
The researchers said they were aware of suicides in the school districts they surveyed, but they did not attempt to measure suicide rates.
While the government has been concerned about a surge in suicides among active-duty service members over the last decade, it is unclear whether their children and school-age younger siblings have also been killing themselves at increased rates.
The researchers gave 2,461 of the students an additional survey that asked more detailed questions about suicidal behavior in the previous year.
The results have not yet been published, but they are worrisome, said Ron Astor of USC, who studies schools, students and families.
Among military children, he said, 21 percent reported having made a suicide plan and nearly 18 percent made an attempt. Nearly 6 percent said they had received medical treatment after an attempt.
The figures for children without parents or siblings in the military were 14 percent, 11 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
The researchers said they would soon publish another analysis showing that deployments of family members raise the likelihood that students will be involved in fights or carry weapons to school.
“We’re seeing the shadows of a long war,” Astor said.