Civilian and military research has linked parental illness and injury with increased overall mental health care and psychiatric medication use in children. Care for specific mental health conditions and medications by child age have not been reported.
We sought to quantify the effect of parental illness and injury on child mental health care and psychiatric medication use in children overall and stratified by age.
A self-controlled case series analyzed the impact of parental illness/injury on mental health and psychiatric medication use of military dependent children. Children were aged 2–16 years (51% male) when their parents were injured and received care in the Military Health System for 2 years before and 2 years after their parent’s illness/injury. We used International Classification of Diseases 9th edition codes to identify outpatient mental healthcare visits. Outpatient care for 14 specific mental health diagnoses was classified using the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality clinical classification system. Outpatient pharmacy records identified psychiatric medication prescriptions by therapeutic class. Parental illness/injury was identified by inclusion in the Military Health System Ill, Injured, and Wounded Warrior database. Adjusted negative binomial regression analysis compared rates of outpatient visits and medication days in the 2 years following parental illness/injury to the 2 years before the parent’s illness/injury overall. Secondary analyses were stratified by age groups of 2–5 years (n = 158,620), 6–12 years (n = 239,614), and 13–16 years n = 86,768) and adjusted for parental pre-injury/illness deployment and child sex. Additional secondary analysis compared post-parental injury/illness care of children whose parents had post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury to children of parents with physical/mental health injury/illness.
There were 485,002 children of 272,211 parents injured during the study period. After adjustment for child sex, years of pre-injury/illness parental deployment, and child age, parental illness/injury was associated with increased mental visits across all categories of care except developmental diagnoses. Post-parental injury visits for suicidal ideation, alcohol abuse, mood, and anxiety disorders were all doubled. For children aged 2–5 years at parental illness/injury, the largest increases in care were in psychotic, anxiety, attention deficit, and mood disorders. In children aged 6–12 years, the largest increases were in psychotic conditions, suicidal ideation, and personality disorders. In adolescents aged 13–16 years, the largest increases were for alcohol and substance abuse disorders, with visits increasing by 4–5 times. For children of all ages, parental injury was associated with increased use of all therapeutic classes of psychiatric medications; use of stimulant medications was increased in younger children and decreased in older children following parental injury (P < .001).
Parental illness/injury is associated with increased mental health care and days of psychiatric medication use in dependent children. Practitioners who care for families impacted by parental illness/injury should be cognizant of children’s mental health risk. Early identification and treatment of child-related mental health issues can improve family functioning and increase military family readiness.