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Your military child’s mental health

This Mental Health Month, think about your kids’ emotional wellness and how you can best nurture their mental health.

Military kids are resilient in the face of unique challenges, but also might need extra emotional support along the way. They can experience struggles other children don’t face, such as their parents’ deployment. We don’t know the entire impact a parent’s deployment has on children, but some younger children seem to struggle more post-deployment. And kids mental health problems tend to increase when a parent returns injured.

Some parents or caregivers might see signs of anxiety in 3–5-year-olds with a parent on long-term deployment. These symptoms could include kids expressing lots of worries and repeatedly asking for reassurance. Some might also complain of physical symptoms, such as a headache or stomachache. Yet it’s also possible that some don’t experience any physical or emotional distress during their parent’s deployment. Overall, military kids tend to be resilient when a parent is deployed.

Still, military kids, like all kids, sometimes experience mental health concerns, including thoughts of suicide, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and cognitive and mood disorders. The percentage of military kids diagnosed with one or more concerns has increased over the past several years. This mirrors what’s happening in civilian families, possibly because pediatricians are getting better at diagnosing and/or referring children for mental health care. 

If you suspect your child needs help, supports and resources are available. Consider using Military OneSource’s confidential video non-medical counseling services for active duty families, including kids and teens. Your children also can connect with other military kids at Military Kids Connect. This site offers help for kids coping with a parent’s deployment too.

In the meantime, visit HPRC’s Family Resilience section for tips on managing family stress and improving family relationships, which are important for kids’ strong mental health.

Feeling stressed? Help is available.

HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships, Mind Body
May is Mental Health Month. Learn more about assessing your own mental health and getting help.

The demands of deployment and combat can be stressful. It’s important to know that, if it gets to be too much for you to handle, you can get help. Here are some ways to find it.

Returning home, you might feel that nothing’s changed since you left, or you could have a rougher transition and experience sadness, sleep problems, anxiety, anger, heightened emotions, edginess, and/or trouble focusing. These are common and normal reactions to being in theater, but they can potentially be signs of mental health concerns too.

So when should you seek help? You can first use a mental health-screening tool that can guide you in the right direction. The assessment is free, anonymous, and available to service members and their families. However, it’s not intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

For accurate diagnosis, or to simply check in with a caring professional, consider consulting a qualified mental health therapist. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website offers good information and helpful resources. Also, Military OneSource offers support and services to improve your mental health and well-being. If you feel you're experiencing a potentially life-threatening problem, contact the Military Crisis Line online or call 800-273-8255 and press “1,” or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) also has a 24/7 Outreach Center featuring a hotline, email, chat, and phone number. And visit HPRC’s Suicide Prevention page. In an emergency, please dial 911.

Be proactive in addressing your mental health. And if you’re ever concerned about safety, err on the side of caution.

Brain injury and memory problems

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Many service members have been affected by traumatic brain injuries. Some have memory problems too. Learn more.

Since 2000, around 350,000 service members have been affected by traumatic brain injuries. TBI often impacts memory, especially short-term memory. Think of long-term memory and short-term memory as “holding bins” for information. Your long-term memory can hold information from several days to decades, while your short-term memory retains information for just a few seconds. And short-term memory is closely associated with working memory (your ability to manipulate information in your head) and sustained attention (your ability to maintain focus).

When memory problems strike, short-term memory, working memory, and sustained attention tend to suffer before long-term memory does. Regardless of cause, memory of a remote event stands out more than newer events because your mind has “rehearsed” the older event repeatedly, essentially embedding it in your brain through repetition. By comparison, your mind hasn’t yet “learned” the newer event. For example, you might recall every detail of combat stories but have difficulty remembering what you ate for lunch. In this case, brain connections that rehearsed the combat story have become solidified, while connections responsible for learning this new information haven’t formed yet.

Depending on the location and nature of the injury, your brain might work differently than it did in the past. This could happen because brain cells that used to “communicate” with each other easily are now being rerouted.

Short-term memory, working memory, and sustained attention also can be affected by other factors such as stress, distraction, poor sleep, depression, anxiety, and/or body toxins. The cause isn’t always obvious. Your doctor can help sort it out, answer questions about your condition, treatment, and prognosis, and refer you to a neuropsychologist for further evaluation. In the meantime, you might find HPRC’s TBI resources useful too.

How post-traumatic stress affects your brain

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Understanding how your brain works might help you better understand post-traumatic stress. Learn more about effective treatments.

Sometimes just understanding what’s going on can help the process of recovery. If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it might help to have a better idea of how your brain functions and how the various parts are supposed to work. This also can help you understand the treatments used to help “rewire” your brain, so it can work properly again.

PTSD is a mental health condition stemming from traumas—experienced during combat, disasters, or violence—that impact brain functioning. The alarm system in your brain, that normally helps ensure your survival, malfunctions; it becomes triggered too easily. In turn, parts of your brain responsible for thinking and memory stop functioning properly. When this happens, you have difficulty comparing what’s happening now with safe events from the past. Read more...

Moving to a beat helps your brain

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Learn how moving to a rhythm can build concentration and help heal the brain!

You probably know how good it feels to tap your foot to the beat of a familiar song. But did you know that moving your body in sync with a beat could help improve thinking and learning abilities? It might possibly repair brain injuries too.

Recent hi-tech breakthroughs show that lining up precise, repeated movements (such as hand clapping) with a certain beat could boost brainpower. Similar to how biofeedback helps you use your mind to ease stress and manage pain, this synchronized metronome training (SMT) approach helps to master the timing of these movements.

SMT is linked to improved concentration, academic performance, behavior, and muscular coordination in children diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also a promising treatment for those diagnosed with brain-based movement disorders such as cerebral palsy, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and stroke-related injuries. SMT offers mind-body benefits for active-duty soldiers coping with blast-related traumatic brain injuries (e.g., inattention and short-term memory loss). It’s even helped healthy golfers step up their game.

SMT helps improve fluid movements for those experiencing excess muscle tension. It also enables better concentration for those feeling distracted or anxious. People can learn to complete a task without trying too hard. Through SMT, you can train your brain by “letting” movements happen—key to its success.

Got pain on your brain?

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Pain is not just in your head, but your head plays a role. Holistic treatment that also addresses your mind may be your best bet in facing pain.

Pain can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unrelenting, so even the most resilient Warfighters can be vulnerable to it. Because of pain, you may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression; your mind may even exaggerate the intensity and awfulness of pain. Socially, you might experience criticism, rejection, and negative interactions with family, spouse, or peers. Even if interactions are generally positive, you may want to withdraw from people or difficult situations

Chronic pain, which lasts longer than three months and is unresponsive to treatment, can affect quality of life for many. At least 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, combat and other situations make Warfighters especially susceptible to experiencing injury and pain. One study of an infantry brigade found that three months after return from Afghanistan, 44% of the soldiers reported chronic pain.

The American Psychological Association has shared evidence that relief from pain is more likely when mind and body are both treated. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has also indicated that continued study of non-drug approaches to pain management is a priority.

The latest trend in treating pain is the “biopsychosocial model,” which focuses on exercise and sleep (not just meds and surgery) as important biological influences. Important psychological factors include thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attention. And impactful social factors involve healthcare, family, and work. All of these factors can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impacts of pain.

The American Psychological Association shares concrete advice to manage pain, including these tips:

  • Distract yourself.
  • Stay active and exercise.
  • Know your limits.
  • Follow prescriptions carefully.
  • Make social connections.
  • Don’t lose hope.

Also be sure to check out HPRC’s mind-body techniques and resources for managing pain.

Make some new “friends with benefits”

Heard the term “friends with benefits”? There’s more than one kind!

Having good social support is beneficial in many ways and can come in a furry package! Pets are wonderful companions, and you benefit by having one (or more) in so many ways: They get you out exercising, increase your self-esteem, decrease a sense of isolation, and help you through tough times. If that’s not enough, there’s a growing amount of research on the use of dogs providing therapeutic benefits to individuals coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Dog owners are also more likely than those who don’t have dogs to meet physical activity guidelines. So if you have a furry creature at home, remember to give them  a big pat for enhancing your life. Indeed, one researcher described these relationships as truly “friends with benefits.”

For Warfighters about to be deployed, pets also can come with the added stress of needing to find a temporary home. To get some tips about what to do with your pet while you’re on deployment, check out this Department of Defense blog.

Are you tough enough…mentally?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Are you mentally tough? See if you’ve got the 4 Cs. Develop these traits and maintain them.

The term “mental toughness” is often tossed about, but what is it really? And do you have it? Mental toughness is important to the success of Warfighters, athletes, business people, and others who have to overcome adversity to be successful.

Sport psychologists and others interested in optimal performance talk a lot about mental toughness, but it’s a bit complex, so it’s often misunderstood. Mental toughness is not just one trait; it’s a mixture of them.

Boiling it down, mental toughness is a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. If you’re mentally tough, you can remain undaunted by adversity.

If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:

1)    Control: You feel in control of your emotions and influential with the people in your life. 

2)    Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.

3)    Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.

4)    Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.

Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.

You can develop mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills.  Leaders can promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of those skills (listed above) and by being generally supportive, encouraging Warfighters to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain your mental toughness, you need to continue honing mental skills, and you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.

Stress hurts Warfighter performance

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Stress really does affect performance. But when you pair stress with mental health concerns, performance can take an even bigger hit.

Stress isn’t an isolated event. It can infiltrate your life in many ways. A survey of more than 12,000 military personnel across the services revealed the impact of stress levels on Warfighter performance. Compared with those with low stress, Warfighters with high stress were much more likely to be late for work, leave work early, get hurt on the job, or miss work altogether because of illness or injury. These trends were especially strong among a smaller subset of personnel who had recently needed a mental health evaluation. Other research suggests that stress can combine with a person’s (often unknown) predispositions, sometimes triggering mental health issues.

Depending on the severity of mental health concerns, focus on performance can take a back seat. So stress, mental health, and performance often go hand in hand. Stress-management techniques and proactive approaches to mental health can help stressed Warfighters perform their best.

Give your brain a break

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Mental fatigue feels lousy and can affect your mental and physical performance. Learn how.

When you have to focus continuously for long periods of time, your brain does, in fact, become tired. Take a break: The symptoms of being mentally burned out can include irritability, lashing out at others, inability to plan, problems with decision-making, lack of drive, and performance errors. Mental fatigue can set in before you’re even aware you need a break, leading to the types of attention problems that ultimately lead to poor performance.

Mental fatigue can also include:

  • Lack of clarity in your own head
  • Conflict between what you’re thinking and what you are actually doing
  • Feeling like you are in over your head

Mental fatigue can also make you feel tired physically, which is why it can be a greater risk for those who must sustain both focus and physical alertness. A brain busy with non-relevant matters also can be tied to feeling “spent.” You not only lose your mental edge and feel more exhausted, but you probably won’t push yourself physically as hard as you need to.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat mental fatigue. The best way is take a break and escape to a place you find relaxing or inspiring. However, if you’re in an office or on a mission, there are various mind-body strategies you can try. Mindfulness techniques are “mental push-ups” that strengthen as well as refresh your brain, so give them a try and give your brain a break.

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