Military Teens Are Struggling With Mental Well-Being, Food Insecurity, Survey Finds

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Yokota High School students
Yokota High School students and guests wait for the new high schools ribbon cutting ceremony to begin, Sept. 25, 2017, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson)

Pandemic aside, military teens are stressed out.

That's a key takeaway from a new survey that should concern the Defense Department. A majority of those polled plan to join the military as adults.

The survey of more than 2,000 teens aged 13 to 19 years old who are in military families found that 42% reported low mental well-being during the pandemic and 45% reported being of moderate well-being. It was published Thursday by the National Military Family Association, or NMFA.

Just 13% said they were better than fine.

It's difficult to determine how the military teen population is holding up compared with the general high school population, since the latest data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is from pre-pandemic 2019 and showed that 37% reported persistent sadness or hopelessness.

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But the military survey still indicates that military "kids are not okay," according to the authors of the report.

"Military teens' well-being is low," wrote the researchers. "We wanted to get an accurate understanding of military teens' mental health. The results weren't good."

The survey, "The Military Teen Experience: A Snapshot of America's Military

Teenagers and Future Force," was conducted by Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen and the National Military Family Association to understand the impact of the pandemic, the military lifestyle and the high operational tempo on the teenage children of service members.

Given that military children learn toward serving themselves, knowing how they are holding up mentally and physically should be of paramount importance to the Defense Department and advocacy groups, explained Besa Pinchotti, executive director and CEO at the NMFA.

The survey found that 65% of respondents said they planned to join the military.

"We always say military kids serve too, and they do, but this is also the population that's going to be serving and protecting our country in the future, so it's an important point," Pinchotti said Thursday in an interview with Military.com.

The poll asked questions about the respondents' sense of mental well-being, including whether they had adequate nutrition and felt supported in their communities and safe in their homes and schools.

In many of those areas, the survey found that teenage military dependents weren't faring well:

  • More than one-third of the respondents worried about whether their families had enough food or the money to buy more.
  • 45% said they'd endured at least one to four parental deployments, and 62% had moved at least one to five times, leaving them less connected to family and their communities.
  • 11% reported domestic abuse or violence in their homes.

"This really tracks with everything that we hear. We talk to military parents and families really regularly, but not so much directly with the teens," Pinchotti said.

The organization Bloom: Empowering the Military Teen is an online site founded by military teens Elena Ashburn and Matthew Oh to give the military teen community a platform to share their experiences, writing, artwork, memes and more.

"We wanted to know straight from the source," Pinchotti said.

They reported enduring frequent moves and the loss of community every time they were uprooted, as well as long-term separations from their parents.

In terms of schools, one-third said they had attended six to 11 schools in their lifetimes. Nearly a third said they weren't able to participate in an extracurricular activity because they were in a military family or expected to move, and 20% felt they had been treated differently or teased for their military connection.

Nearly half said they had experienced at least one deployment, with about 14% saying they had gone through five to 10 deployments. Fifteen respondents reported 19 or more deployments among one or both of their parents.

Not surprisingly, the survey confirmed that deployments can take a toll on mental health.

"Military teens who reported experiencing more deployments or separations lasting three months or longer generally reported lower mental well-being," the researchers wrote.

While most children, or 57%, said they did not experience or witness any domestic abuse or violence in their homes, 11% said they had. Roughly 5% reported having been abused by a parent, and 5% said they experienced dating violence.

The results also reflected food insecurity, an issue that advocates say is a growing problem among military families and veterans. Of the respondents, 36% said they experienced food insecurity during the pandemic year, including nearly 40% of active-duty dependent respondents.

That may be much higher than the national average.

According to the report, the Department of Agriculture said 10.5% of American families were food insecure in 2020, while the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank found that 27.5% of families with children experienced food insecurity during the pandemic.

Congress has taken notice, and this year the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act contain provisions for struggling families to receive extra pay to cover food costs.

The bill has yet to be finalized or signed into law, but it currently contains a "basic needs allowance" that would provide the benefit to troops if their household income does not exceed 130% of the federal poverty level.

Pinchotti said abolishing food insecurity among military families would "go a long way toward helping our military teens' well-being."

This community warrants more research not only for its own well-being but for the national defense, since they are more likely to become the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardians and Marines of tomorrow, the authors noted.

A 2019 DoD poll showed that only 13% of Americans aged 16 to 24 said they would likely join the military in the next couple of years. But two-thirds of the study respondents, or 1,379 teens, said they planned to serve.

Given their willingness to join, Pinchotti said the DoD and advocacy groups should do more to support them, including expanded access to mental health services and wellness initiatives, and more programs tailored to their needs.

"We're asking the Department of Defense to make the well-being of our military kids a priority," Pinchotti said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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