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Resources, resiliency help military children turn away from suicidal thoughts

A note about social media written by one of the participants of an Air Force resiliency teen camp is displayed in a classroom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Trimarchi) A note about social media written by one of the participants of an Air Force resiliency teen camp is displayed in a classroom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Trimarchi)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Like many teenagers starting high school, Edward was having trouble fitting in. The child of military parents who traveled around the world, Edward, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, found himself in a new, civilian school where he was one of few “military brats.” He was admittedly a bit out of shape, nerdy, and found it hard to make friends.

“I was really isolated. I felt miserable,” said the now-active-duty service member about the time in his life about 20 years ago. “One evening, I thought about using a knife to kill myself. I just wanted it to be over.”

Children of military parents face challenges that include parental deployments and frequent relocations, which can cause feelings of isolation and, possibly, thoughts of suicide. (Courtesy photo)Children of military parents face challenges that include parental deployments and frequent relocations, which can cause feelings of isolation and, possibly, thoughts of suicide. (Courtesy photo)

Edward opened the knife and was ready to use it. But then he thought about it for a minute. “And I just set it down.”

That decision not to commit suicide, say some military health experts, could be rooted in a resiliency children of military members seem to have.

“In my personal experience as a Navy child psychiatrist, I’ve found that children of military parents are more resilient than some of the other populations,” said Navy Capt. Mike Colston, director of mental health programs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

Colston cited studies that explore resiliency in military children and the effect situations, such as parental deployments, have on their mental well-being. Colston said the structure of the military helps foster that resiliency.

“For instance, our large support network and the ease of access to military health care help those children,” he said. “The Department of Defense has made a number of investments in families, such as the great work done by the Military Community and Family Policy office over the past decade, especially in the area of deployments. A deployment is a family issue, and one we need to meet with preparedness and flexibility, fulfilling families’ needs where they are.”

Colston said more research is needed on the impact on children’s mental health, and the military is doing that. He believes Military Kids Connect and Sesame Street for Military Families are valuable resources. “Plus, there are child-specific services through family offices for each of the military services, as well as the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.”

Another resource is the BeThere Peer Assistance Line, the only dedicated Department of Defense peer support call and outreach center available to all service members and their families. Available online, by calling 844-357-PEER (7337), and by texting 480-360-6188, it is staffed by peer coaches who are veterans and spouses of prior service members. They can be reached 24/7 through chat, email, phone, and text. It provides confidential communications between peer counselors and service members.

Outside of formal programs, Colston encouraged military members to make psychological health for their children a part of the family care plan they put together before going to a remote location. “It’s incumbent upon you as a service member to have that plan in place at all times to look after your family, especially minors. It’s more than just making sure they have a roof over their heads and plenty to eat. The plan must include help for psychological needs.”

Colston is empathetic to military children. His father was also in the Navy and spent several years at sea, especially during Colston’s earliest years. He has two children of his own, who have weathered his deployments. He knows the right support system is key.

“It’s important to make available to your children medical programs that address their emotional states,” said Colston. “It’s also important to be there as a parent, using the resources available for parenting help.”

Edward is not sure what stopped him from committing suicide that fateful night; maybe it was resiliency, maybe it was just being scared. But he does know that he now has a toddler son. Edward said he’s planning to stay as open as possible, talking to him every day, and won’t accept a one-word “fine” whenever he asks his son how he’s doing.

“I want to know everything he’s going through, and I’ll do my best not to deter him from being open as well, telling me when he makes mistakes or does bad things,” said Edward. “Isolation hurts. It only makes the depression worse. Talk to someone, even if it’s your parents.”

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