Military Family Counseling

Learn about what the Military is offering its service members and their families...

military family counseling

Walking into a Wal Mart doesn't trigger panic attacks or anger for most people, but after developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during two tours of duty in Iraq, Adam Paul becomes extremely agitated, to the point where he has to leave the store. Paul can't handle the noise and activity - especially whining customers.

It's hard to explain why certain things trigger anger and anxiety (see Anxiety), he said. But he does know it has to do with having suffered several head injuries from roadside bombs in Iraq. It also stems from always having to be on alert. "Because if you don't see someone before he sees you, you die," Adams said.

Sitting next to his pregnant wife Jessica and his 1-year-old son Cooper, Paul said he is lucky to have the support and love of his family, and that's his motivation to get past the PTSD and move on with his life. He is in individual and family counseling, and goes to LearningRX every day, a learning center that is helping him recover from traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Paul and his wife see a private psychologist that takes TRICARE, the insurance program for military members and their families. Other families like Paul and his wife receive military family counseling from counselors and psychologists who work on a military base, or at hospitals associated with military installations.

Luis Trevino, president of The Military Family Network (MFN), a private organization that provides support services to military families, said that military members and their families have a range of options, depending on their geographical location, for getting help with the stressors and mental health issues associated with military service.

"PTSD doesn't just affect the person who goes through the experience, it also affects the whole family," Trevino said.

Kids in families where a parent has PTSD can also develop a form of the disorder from living with the parent, Trevino said. A military base often has psychological services available, but sometimes the family wishes to go off base, he said. Or in the case of National Guard or Reserve families that don't live on military installations, the family must seek help in the community or from military support organizations.

Trevino pointed to Military OneSource sponsored by the Department of Defense, as providing excellent services at no cost for those seeking counseling help within the military. The website includes phone numbers, support groups, instant messaging, articles, chats, and many other resources for those needing help.

Nonprofits, such as Gift From Within, provide a range of services for individuals and families struggling with PTSD, he said. The organization also provides training materials for therapists working with PTSD patients.

Certain situations that are relatively new to the military, such as the number of mothers now going off to war, have necessitated changes in both military family counseling, and other organizations providing services. Trevino said recently a woman with the rank of captain contacted MFN for help with her 5-year-old child. The woman has been deployed five times in the last six years, and her child has issues stemming from her mother's absence during key developmental stages.

When a service person like this captain calls MFN, Trevino and his staff offer a list of resources and services - military, nonprofit, and private - for the child and the parents. In some cases, a stigma surrounding getting help still exists in the military, but that is beginning to change, he said. However, it's really up to the individuals and families to decide where they feel comfortable receiving help.

In Paul's case, he first received help from the warrior transition unit at his base, Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. The Army organized warrior transition units on bases across the country in 2007 and 2008, as the numbers of injured soldiers needing both physical and psychological health care increased. Soldiers staying in the army, or those receiving discharges, who require medical care for six months or longer are provided help by these units.

Paul received an honorable discharge in December 2009. He wanted more help than the unit could provide because of its large caseload, so the Army referred him to a private counselor and to other services off base, like LearningRX. Adams said the daily sessions at the learning center are helping him sharpen his focus and regain his memory, which the brain injuries left significantly impaired. By retraining his memory, he feels he's regaining control of his life, and that works to alleviate stress and anxiety.

Since 2001, service members from all military branches have experienced several deployments to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, taking a parent away from a spouse and children for several months at a time, and for several times in a matter of years, said Clinical Psychologist Barbara Schochet, who also is the assistant director of The Soldiers Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling services to service members and their families in all the armed services, including those in the National Guard or Army Reserves.

Those working with military families see the effects of this stress firsthand, she said. Children worry about the deployed parent, fearing for that parent's safety, worrying also about the overwhelmed parent left at home. Older children often assume more responsibility than children should, taking care of younger siblings, cooking, cleaning - basically filling in for the deployed parent. Deployments can last 15 months or more when considering time spent training before leaving the States.

Schochet said that therapists working for the Soldiers Project have noticed higher divorce rates among service members, and also a rise in alcohol and substance abuse, child abuse and neglect (see Child Abuse). During deployment, teenagers act out more, grades plummet, and other behavioral issues surface.

When a deployed parent returns home, oftentimes the family deals with an injured or disabled parent, or one suffering with PTSD or TBI. PTSD resulting from combat is much different from PTSD acquired by a different trauma, such as what police officers or emergency personnel experience, Schochet said. These are all issues that therapists must educate themselves on before attempting to counsel an individual or family.

Even if therapists aren't experts on PTSD, they can become educated enough to know what questions to ask, Schochet said. Therapists also need to acquaint themselves with military lingo that consists of numerous abbreviations and acronyms to communicate effectively. Soldiers Project requires its volunteer therapists to take seminars specific to the issues of military life, and the emotional and behavioral issues specific to military life, combat and war.

Schochet recommends extended training on these military "specific" issues for all psychology professionals desiring to work with military families. In her experience, even those with many years of counseling experience welcome this type of training. If you are thinking about a career in counseling, request information from schools offering counseling degree programs to learn more about the process of entering the field.

MFN's Trevino recommends volunteering for a hospital that's close to or associated with a military installation, or volunteer at day care center close to a military base. Working with service men and women, and the children of deployed parents can be an "eye opening" experience, Trevino said. Volunteering is an excellent opportunity to learn by doing, and getting to know the culture surrounding the people you want to help.

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