Both academic and popular news sources have been reporting on the health problems experienced by active duty military and veterans (e.g., Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Recently we have also begun to see research looking at the health problems experienced by spouses and children within military families. This January USA Today story highlights two such research studies:
(1) The first study (published in the New England Journal of Medicine) concluded that wives of soldiers sent to war suffered significantly higher rates of mental health issues than those whose husbands stayed home.
For example, wives of soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan between one and 11 months had an 18% higher rate of depression than those whose husbands did not go to war. When soldiers were deployed 11 months or longer, their wives had a 24% higher rate of depression.
(2) The second study (by the RAND Organization) found that children of deployed parents suffer more emotional issues, particularly if separations are long or the parent at home is troubled.
Based on this data, public health experts can see a clear need to develop interventions not just focused on active duty military and veterans, but also for their families. Therefore, I was happy to see that Sesame Workshop (the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street) has created a program called "Talk, Listen, Connect", which addresses priority issues for this population. I reviewed three brief videos and accompanying literature on this project and was very impressed:
- The "channel" being chosen to reach parents and children is an existing one. Families are already familiar with (and trusting of) Sesame Street, so they are not asking families to bring an unfamiliar resource into their homes. E.g., Elmo is the character used most frequently in these videos, and he is beloved by children. They are used to learning from Elmo.
- The videos used various methods for providing information, so it can be appropriate for learners of multiple levels/backgrounds. E.g., Pictures, songs, modeling of conversations between Elmo and his Dad, celebrity cameos (Queen Latifah stars in the third video).
- The creators obviously did research into relevant issues for military families (e.g., the videos address preparing for deployment, adjusting to homecoming, and coping with changes). The third video even shows a child coping with a Dad who came back with TBI- an injury unfortunately too common with these wars.
- The Sesame Workshop is even going beyond education to address real barriers to families staying connected. I was thrilled to see them examining challenges in the environment! They have created Sesame Street Family Connections. It is a little like having a Facebook Family Page. It is a a child-centered online space where both children and adults can interact and stay connected over long distances when everyday communication can otherwise be difficult. Family and friends can post pictures and videos, share messages and artwork, etc. This strategy is attempting to increase connections and family support (and decrease isolation)...which can help reduce associated negative health effects (e.g., depression).
- A plan for outcome evaluation exists! So often, this is left out of public health education planning. Although research about the effects of Talk, Listen, Connect on families experiencing multiple deployments and injuries is forthcoming (as the projects moves through several phases of roll-out). A summary study for the first phase of the project, which dealt with a parent’s first deployment, revealed that the materials helped military parents and children feel better during deployment, and helped them to be prepared emotionally for the deployment process. It also showed that Talk, Listen, Connect is helping parents by giving them the language and tools they need to engage in a dialogue with their children.