A new survey found isolation and frequent moves are harming military teens' mental health
The study of military dependents found more than 40 percent reported low mental well-being, often because of separations and a lack of connections in their lives.
Military teenagers and their families know that frequent moves across the country and around the world are difficult. The constant relocations can cause feelings of anxiety, isolation and depression especially among middle and high school-age military dependents.
Two such teenagers collaborated with the National Military Family Association to survey more than 2,000 military dependents like themselves. They wanted to pin down just how distressing the lifestyle is.
Elena Ashburn and Matthew Oh — who had earlier partnered to create Bloom, a website and social media channel for military teens — found that mental health issues are widespread.
“We had very low levels of mental well-being reported across our military teens, which is something we can see just in our everyday lives with the people around us," Oh said. "But it was very shocking to see that put in numbers."
Using the Warwick Scale, the survey showed that 42% of respondents reported low mental well-being and 45% reported moderate mental well-being.
Oh is a high school senior on Camp Humphreys in South Korea. He said his family's move to that country was tough.
“That was a very dark time for me,” Oh said. “And I was constantly wallowing in self-pity because of what I had left behind.”
Oh’s involvement in his new school and his friendship with other military kids pulled him through. He's now heavily involved in school activities as a percussionist and the student body president. He said he did not seek mental health services, and he rated himself as having a high level of mental well-being on the survey.
In his student council role at his on-base school, he keeps an eye on other students.
“When you have students that are not being adequately cared for, that definitely contributes to a culture in a community,” Oh said.
Ashburn, who’s also a high school senior, began seeing a therapist after a particularly difficult move from Pennsylvania to her current home just outside of Fort Lauderdale. In Pennsylvania, she developed a sense of community that she hadn’t elsewhere — then had to leave almost immediately.
During that low period, she said she asked herself: “What is what is all this suffering for? Why am I being so sad? What is the purpose of this? I don’t want it to be for nothing. I don’t want it to be for the sole reason of me being sad.”
That’s when she and Oh had the inspiration to start Bloom, a digital community by and for military teens. On its website and on social media, Bloom provides resources and advice, as well as a creative forum for writing, art, and multimedia.
Oh and Ashburn report thousands of hits on their website as well as numerous private messages from users.
They understand that it’s not simply that their peers have a hard time with relocations; it’s also that they struggle with long separations from deployed parents. Oh and Ashburn have been there.
“You don't want to call 911 if you are struggling with your mom being overseas, right? There’s not a hotline to call in that situation," Ashburn said.
When Colorado Springs family therapist Lisa Collingridge noticed this lack of help for military dependent, she decided to step up. A military mom herself, Collingridge has been a clinician for a year after working in the field in other capacities for five.
Collingridge’s children are 12 and 16, and the family has moved seven times. She said a crucial piece of development for this age group is connectedness and stable support networks of adults.
“When you look at peer support in adolescence and teenage years, it feeds self-esteem, it reinforces self-worth,” Collingridge said. “Our ability to connect with other humans who are of our age group helps us be validated at an interpersonal level.”
She said when that piece of the puzzle is missing, it can trigger a mental health diagnosis, which she’s alarmed about for several reasons.
The well-being of the children is her chief concern, but beyond that, the new survey showed that 65% of military teens plan to serve in the armed forces, compared with about 14% among those in civilian families.
Certain mental health diagnoses can keep volunteers from serving, though waivers are available. But Collingridge wonders why it would have to come to that.
“If we eliminate those kids [from service], because they’ve gone through mental health problems that were a result of military lifestyle, what type of messages are we sending?” Collingridge asked.
College student Delaney Edger said mental health was never spoken about when she was younger, and she didn’t talk to a therapist until recently. Edger moved eight times before her father retired from the Army. She now attends North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“I never took the time actually to really check in on how I was doing,” Edger said. “I do now go to therapy, which I have kind of been able to discover some of these mental health struggles that I faced throughout my life that I was not really fully aware of in the moment.”
Though Edger, Ashburn, and Oh are nearing the end of their journey as military dependents, they are not among the 65% who plan to serve.
Ashburn said her work on Bloom has helped her decide to study public policy and administration in college.
“I love helping people, and I love making them know that they’re not alone," she said. "They’re supported.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.