July 17, 2020

Study aims to bolster mental health of military personnel and their families

Education researcher empowers youth with strengths-based approach to trauma response

While the conventional image of Canadian Armed Forces personnel is that of individuals who are stoic, steadfast and unflappable, the reality can often be quite different when it comes to mental health. Many grapple with personal wellness as a result of trauma experienced during their time in the military, and these struggles frequently have a significant impact on their family members.

A new research study at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education is exploring the influence a parent’s occupational stress injury (OSI) may have on an adolescent’s mental health. Specifically, the researchers want to better understand the protective factors that help children and teens to thrive in the face of trying circumstances and the ways in which youth in military families may be uniquely resilient. Results of the study will be used to design intervention and prevention programs to support military and first responder families.

“Occupational stress injury is a broad term used to describe a persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties. Symptoms can range quite a bit — they can include mental health disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder and substance abuse disorders,” explains project lead and Counselling Psychology doctoral candidate Danae Laut.

“In this case we’re looking specifically at trauma-related symptoms like recurring intrusive memories of a trauma, or hypervigilance.”

Impact of parental trauma on children

Laut says common signs of a parent coping with an OSI are an increased sensitivity to loud or misbehaving children, a lower tolerance for disruption, or detachment and withdrawal from the family. No matter how the trauma manifests, the effects are far reaching.

“The research so far shows that when a parent is dealing with an OSI, like PTSD, kids tend to have higher rates of academic problems, behavioural issues and emotional disorders like depression and anxiety. Anxiety tends to be somewhat ‘contagious’ in families, so if one parent is distressed often, that might lead to their children being more distressed as well.”

While there is evidence to suggest that children in military families are also more likely to struggle with behavioural issues, Laut believes the communal nature these families enjoy may also be a source of strength.

“Military children have access to a lot of protective factors or resources that might help bolster their resilience. For example, military communities tend to be very close-knit and supportive, so youth may have strong social support networks as well as a group of people who share their unique experiences of being part of a military family.”

Empowering youth and teens

Laut hopes to get a better grasp of these individual and communal dynamics as there has been little research in the area of military family resilience. She says much of the research to date has focused on children under 10 years of age and relies mostly on parent reports rather than the personal narratives of those directly affected. Laut acknowledges the value of the insight adults can provide but believes speaking to children and teens is crucial.

“Interviewing teens is essential because then we get a first-hand account of their experiences, what they think they need, what helps them cope, and what is hard for them. Not only can participating in interviews be empowering for teens but it also gives us a relatively unbiased look at the needs and strengths that these youth might have.”

That said, Laut understands that speaking about mental health can be difficult. “There can be a lot of stigma around mental health in general but especially for individuals in first-responder positions. I appreciate how sensitive the topic of OSIs can be for military personnel and their families.

"We intentionally designed this study so that the emphasis is on strengths and resilience rather than risk so as to not stigmatize parents and families.”

Laut is recruiting current or former members of the Canadian Armed Forces who feel their mental health has been impacted by an occupational stress injury as well as their children (age 11 to 18). Participants will be asked to complete a survey or take part in interviews conducted by the researchers. Find full details of the study.