Targeting the mental health of kids growing up in military families

Saying goodbye to the soldier

Research to improve the health of military families serving Canada is a current focus at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, home of the Royal Military College of Canada and Canadian Forces Base Kingston.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sarosh Khalid-Khan and her interprofessional team in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry are working with Dr. Heidi Cramm, Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen's University, to understand the effects of military life on the mental health of children and youth.  The family consequences of common experiences such as frequent deployment, protracted absences of family members in dangerous zones and re-integration of family members who have exposure to violent trauma have been poorly documented.

In a three-year study funded by the Health Research Foundation, Drs. Cramm and Khalid-Khan will engage in interviews, focus groups, and surveys to acquire first-hand accounts of Canadian military families.

“I’m hoping this research will ultimately help strengthen the healthcare system’s capacity to recognize and address the mental health needs of children growing up military families.  These children may have unique vulnerabilities but have historically been neglected by researchers,” says Dr. Cramm, who is also the Head of Knowledge Translation for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.

“This work will form the essential foundation for the development of new programs and policies to reduce health inequities that children of military families may be experiencing and improve their health outcomes.”

Seeking insight into supporting kids with special needs in military families
In addition, Dr. Cramm is working with Dr. R. Garth Smith, a developmental pediatrician with the Child Development Centre at Hotel Dieu Hospital, to explore difficulties faced by military families with children who have special needs and require access to specialized resources in the health care system and school accommodations.  Their research project aims to learn more about these challenges through interviews with military families who have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Funded by the Queen's University Senate Advisory Research Committee, the project will gather unique insight into the experiences of military families navigating systems (e.g., health care, school accommodations) and securing supports for children with ASD during current and previous postings.

ASDs are a group of uniquely challenging disorders presenting with social interactional deficits, communication difficulties and restricted and repetitive behaviours. Treatment is largely “behavioural”, and wait times for this treatment is unacceptably long (often 2-4 years).

The researchers point out that in the case of military families, many are forced to discontinue treatment abruptly or lose their place in the waiting list due to mandatory relocation. Although transitions can be the norm in the military, children with ASD are extremely vulnerable to the effects of change.

This study is particularly relevant as it will look specifically at the impacts of these changes and others on these children and their families, which will inform the development of future useful interventions. The researchers further note that in Kingston and surrounding areas, the many families who have children diagnosed with ASD are supported through the Child Development Centre in particular and Hotel Dieu Hospital in general.

This research is an example of how Hotel Dieu Hospital is contributing to a healthier, wealthier, smarter Ontario.