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Supporting Military Families - Wendy Nicholson

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Last week, thousands paid tribute to the armed forces.  Remembrance Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future contribution our service personnel make. As a nation we have a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and how they should expect to be treated (The armed forces covenant (2011)). Serving personnel may be separated from their families, or the family unit may be posted away from their extended family or local community – both provide opportunities for new experiences and may present challenges.

For the armed forces community, the covenant is about removing disadvantage to ensure armed forces and their families get the same outcome as the civilian community.  The life experiences of children of service families are unique.  They are often exposed to unique experiences, which may include: separation from a parent, frequent moving of house or school, caring for a sibling or parent, taking responsibility for the household or sudden deployment to a combat zone, all of which may impact on the way children lead their lives both now and in the future.

We know military families are well supported by health services within the armed forces. Over the last year, Public Health England and Department of Health, together with NHS England, have worked with health professions, both civilian and military and welfare services including SSAFA, Naval Families Federation and Army Families Federation, to raise awareness of the challenges military families may experience and to seek opportunities to provide seamless support.

Health professionals such as health visitors and school nursing teams are well placed within local communities to support both serving personnel and indeed those families being re-based or returning to the UK. Today we publish professional guidance to support health visitors and school nurses to work with key stakeholders, including early years and education providers, in identifying children of military families and to work with parents to improve the health outcomes, particularly in terms of emotional health and wellbeing.

The guidance recognises the importance of effective communication between NHS and military services and the vital role welfare services play. Working together to support military families is so important and can be achieved through effective communication, information sharing, collaboration and joint working. We all have a part to play in raising awareness of military families and their unique experiences; together we can help to ensure our serving personnel’s families are not disadvantaged.

We recently hosted an exchange visit with academic colleagues from the USA who specialise in support for veterans. The day was informative and provided an opportunity to review our guidance prior to publication.  We also were invited to present at the first Joining Forces Across the Atlantic to Restore Lives conference. At the conference there was avid interest in the guidance from both England and across the pond – perhaps next year health visitors and school nurses from the UK will submit abstracts for the second annual conference and share their fabulous examples of support?

miltary families

Wendy Nicholson, Lead Nurse for Children, Young People and Families, Public Health England

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  1. Comment by Greg thomas posted on


    I am currently the Nurse Advisor Mental Health for the Britsh Forces Gemany. We are providing CAMHs service to the children and young people whose parent(s) are posted to germany.

    It is good to see recognition of the unique experiences of the military families.

    There is a paucity of research exploring the mental health of British military children. While the association between stress and onset or reoccurrence of mental disorders, has been well documented, it is not well studied in British military children.

    Whilst military life brings many unique benefits and opportunities, military children face a number of issues, obstacles and stresses that are very different from those of their civilian counterparts. Military children are often portrayed as stereotypical groups, rather than the complex populations that they are.

    Service Children’s Educational schools in Germany have revealed that as of August 2015 there were 2280 school age children, whose parent(s) are currently posted to Germany. Although not great numbers, this becomes more significant when evidenced that 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

    Increasing interest and concerns are being raised about the impact of parental deployment on children. It would be inappropriate to assume either widespread pathology or uniform resilience, drawing such conclusions without supporting data would intrude on the scientific process.

    More than one third of school-aged children are at high risk of psychosocial difficulties during parental deployment, which is more than 2.5 times the national average. Children of deployed parents especially teenagers and girls have reported more problems with school, family and mental health. The longer the parental deployment, the greater these issues are, not just during the deployment but also after.

    It is the frequency of moving which is on average every two to three years, which leads many military children to experience disrupted relationships with friends, and requires they adapt to new schools and cultivate new community resources.

    Although parental deployment and frequent relocation can place military children on an emotional roller coaster, they have a number of advantages that their civilian counterparts do not. All families have a least one regular income, there is good standard of education, safe housing, accessible and responsive health care services, which help most children and families show resilience and growth.

    Resilience mitigates stress and improves adjustment by children
    To provide the right service at the right time, mental health staff would benefit from a better understanding of the challenges, strengths and assets of military children to help them not only survive but thrive.

    • Replies to Greg thomas>

      Comment by Viv Bennett posted on

      Dear Greg
      Thank you for your comments, we are keen to ensure health professionals both civilian and military work together to identify the support military families may require. The guidance is a tool to raise awareness of such needs and to equip health visitors and school nurses with clearer guidance.



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