Before September 11th, 2001, most Air Force psychologists helped select the most promising aviation cadets using psychological tests that predicted combat skills and aptitudes. But after the start of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the demand increased for more Air Force psychologists to assist the military in providing a wide range of mental health treatments, interventions, and prevention programs within a clinical setting.
Over a decade of war, and the associated stress it places on individuals and families, has meant a shortfall of psychologists across all military branches: the Air Force reports that it is currently down 13% from a fully staffed complement, according to 2009 data from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. The number of deployments, compounded with additional months tacked on to each deployment, has increased marital and other family problems among Air Force families, and has deepened anxieties, depression, and anger among Air Force personnel.
Why are Air Force Psychologists Needed?
Those seeking mental health services have reported problems coping with the bloody devastation of wounded or maimed bodies, images that remain in one’s memory long after returning home. They also report heightened anxiety at having feared for their own lives during combat, and experienced a loss of control over intense, ongoing conflicts. All of these feelings directly correlate with high degrees of stress, contributing to emotional sadness, anger, depression, and more severe symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For these reasons, and also to reduce the stigma often associated with seeking and receiving help for behavioral issues, the Air Force instituted the Behavioral Health Optimization Program, which places psychologists and social workers in the Air Force’s primary-care facilities. By having behavioral health specialists work alongside other healthcare providers, service members needing help are more easily identifiable, and more likely to receive treatment for behavioral issues they would otherwise deny.
Where do Air Force Psychologists Work?
Air Force psychologists work at military hospitals, and at deployment centers, where troops prepare to leave for Iraq or Afghanistan. At the deployment centers, the psychologists administer prevention programs focusing on suicide prevention, and alcohol and substance abuse. They also provide short-term therapies on stress and anxiety treatments, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
The behavioral, emotional, and physical strain on Air Force personnel is often unimaginable to most civilians, and some cope better than others. A large part of the post-deployment service that psychologists administer is determining the level and type of treatment for returning fighters. In military hospitals and clinics, Air Force psychologists work with injured individuals on chronic pain management techniques, insomnia, headaches, diet, and medicine adherence.
Emotional adjustment for family members, either during the service member’s deployment, or after returning home, is also an important aspect of the Air Force psychologist’s job. Family members often must adjust to the emotional or physical injuries of a parent or spouse, or simply try and cope with the constant lifestyle changes that occur when a family member repeatedly re-deploys. Family members often need counseling to help “re-engineer” their lives to this type of constant readjustment. Psychologists also run group counseling sessions, and provide marital counseling for couples.
And Air Force psychologists continue to train and identify combat-ready pilots. In addition to traditional psychological assessments, aviation psychologists also contribute to the human aspect of increasing bombing accuracy. These psychologists work to guide bombardiers in identifying targets and direct bombs to them. They assist the commanding officers of heavy bombardment groups in selecting the person best qualified for a key bombardier position through the use of psychological aptitude and proficiency tests. Pilot performance is, of course, the focus of aviation psychologists working for the Air Force.
In addition to having psychological knowledge, Air Force psychologists working in aviation psychology must have an in-depth knowledge of the aviation field. Many psychologists who enter the Air Force, and go to school to become psychologists, gain this type of hands-on experience.
The Air Force also hires licensed psychologists who desire a commission, and these psychologists fill a number of roles, from working in military and Veterans hospitals, to working in deployment centers, and overseas with troops based in Iraq and Afghanistan. Positions are also available for civilian psychologists desiring to work with military personnel and families in military hospitals and outpatient clinics.
For those desiring to work with Air Force or other military service members and their families, and wanting to become a psychologist, the military has increased its signing bonuses and training options to meet the increased demand. Opportunities are diverse, and the variety one gets working for the military often exceeds what most civilian psychologists receive in more narrowly defined positions. Get started today by requesting degree information from schools that offer psychology degree programs. Make sure the program you enroll in has been accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Enrollment officers at the schools will tell you if their program is accredited or not.