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Military Counseling

Learn how military counseling is helping service members and their families...

military counseling

The best technologies in the world don't win wars, it's the people operating those technologies, the men and women on the tanks, in the cockpits, and on aircraft carriers, working hard for the nation's security and freedom. So when the military talks of maintaining the health of its fighting backbone, it considers paramount the work of mental health professionals.

Military counselors provide a wide variety of mental health services for all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, including the National Guard and Reserves. The BNET article "Counseling Services for Military Personnel and Their Families" (bnet.com) by David Fenell and Ruth Ann Fenell, states that at times these services overlap, but for the most part, they fall into one of three categories:

  1. Counseling services for military personnel
  2. Counseling services for military families
  3. Counseling services for training programs and specific missions

Counseling For Military Personnel

Military individuals seek treatment for a number of issues, many similar to what civilians seek treatment for - depression (see Depression), anxiety (see Anxiety), anger management, substance abuse (see What is Substance Abuse?)- but all within the context of the demands placed on them within the military culture. Counselors working on military bases in the U.S. and overseas, in military hospitals and clinics, as well as civilian counselors treating military personnel, know and understand the stressors associated with this unique culture.

Because of a rising number of suicides in the military over the past eight years of war, counselors also train commanders and officers how to watch for signs of emotional distress among their troops. They also develop and deliver educational programs to all levels of military personnel, programs designed to dispel the stigma associated with receiving mental health counseling, and also programs that focus on stress and anger management, and suicide awareness.

Individuals are taught how to identify physical symptoms of stress, such as upset stomach, muscle aches, rapid heartbeat, headaches, sleep and eating disturbances. Warning signs of uncontrolled anger are tight muscles, clenched jaws, racing heartbeats and shaky feelings. Counselors demonstrate effective strategies to counter the effects of these stressors, such as relaxation and meditation techniques, time management strategies, exercise, or recommend more specialized counseling if problems persist.

Counselors who treat service members individually for a specific problem will employ a therapy that helps pinpoint an "activating event that created the problem," according to the BNET article by Fenell and Fenell. Called rational emotive behavioral therapy, it helps the client uncover any self-defeating attitudes or behaviors contributing to the problem, and directs the client to more healthy, appropriate responses.

Counseling For Military Families

If civilians are having marital problems or their children are experiencing emotional and behavioral concerns, those individuals are less likely to perform well on the job. The same applies to military families, yet the stress placed on these families is so compelling and intense that it's especially important for counselors to comprehend the magnitude of military stressors.

Eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant several deployments for service members, often with only a year or less between missions. The constant leaving and returning of a spouse or parent means shifting roles and new routines, only to be altered yet again in the future. Counselors work with families before a service member deploys, guiding family members through the transition, helping them identify and envision solutions to upcoming changes. They also work with families during deployment, and after a service member returns home.

Using family systems theory, counselors teach families at all stages of deployment how the actions of each member, and the interactive patterns between family members, form a functioning or nonfunctioning system. The actions of each family member are examined, and the entire family is counseled on how to respond to fears, anxieties, and increased responsibilities.

Oftentimes, counselors work one-on-one with children or teens acting out because of anxiety or fear, or the number of uncontrollable changes in their lives. For young children, the counselor employs play therapy, which allows the child to talk or vent in a safe, nonthreatening environment. In this setting, the therapist also reinforces appropriate, positive coping behaviors.

Deployments and constant geographical moves to different bases cause stress on couples as well. Long separations can lead to infidelity, which often leads to divorce. And the negative effects of divorce on a service member's performance as well as the devastation to children has far-reaching implications for the entire family, as well as society. Counselors work with couples on positive and appropriate communications, ways to support each other, and how to clearly identify needs, hurts, wants, and compromises.

Counseling For Training Programs and Specific Missions

Counselors and other mental health professionals also help military leaders identify highly qualified candidates for specific, often dangerous, missions. Counselors use psychological tests and assessments, interviews, and performance ratings to select individuals for demanding training programs and military positions.

All military branches train selected candidates for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. This program trains individuals for the most treacherous combat missions, missions with a high probability of capture. The program teaches resiliency techniques, focusing on survival and evasion, and withstanding brutal capture conditions and interrogation methods.

Working with the military's leadership, counselors identify the most qualified individuals for SERE, using assessment tools to rate the selected warriors' performances during and after training. The post-training evaluation gauges if those who have completed the course understand harmful psychological tactics that captors often employ. The post-evaluation also ensures that these individuals won't misuse the psychological techniques that they learned on enemy combatants.

For those who return from capture, counselors also get involved in the debriefing process. These counselors determine the extent of emotional injury as a result of the capture, and provide any required therapies to help these individuals return to normal functioning. Counselors often employ strategies that help these warriors reduce the likelihood of developing severe disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder.

Qualifications for counselors vary according to the hiring civilian organization, or for those already in the military, according to the U.S. Armed Forces branch, or Veterans Affairs position. Additionally, for those already enlisted and interested in a career as a counselor, various training programs are available depending on the military organization.

If you are interested in counseling military personnel and their families, providing therapies and appropriate coping strategies, administering psychological tests, and assisting those recovering from war wounds and disabilities, you should consider a career as a military counselor. Request information from schools offering degree programs in Counseling or Psychology to learn more.

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