Sometimes a service member’s reason to talk with a mental health specialist does not stem from a war wound or intense combat situation, does not require medication or long-term therapy, does not necessitate a team of professionals to coordinate care. Sometimes military personnel or family members only need one or two sessions with a military counselor to vent.
Other times, however, counseling is needed to help an individual make a few behavioral changes, to sharpen coping skills, to resolve stressful interactions between family members. Military counselors help people uncover their strengths and resources to solve immediate issues. Perhaps a National Guard member, serving on the Honor Guard, burying fellow service members four times a day, every day of the week, is struggling emotionally. A military counselor will help the service member find ways to adapt to this extremely difficult job.
Or counselors help military families cope with deployment issues, such as when a child starts acting out because of fear and anxiety over a parent’s overseas assignment. Acting out, such as biting other children, or bullying, leads to expulsion from day care centers or schools if not addressed. So the military counselor works with the child, staff and parent addressing the issue, helping everyone guide the child to find other, more appropriate ways to express fear or anger.
Another way that counselors use their expertise is to help those returning home from overseas reintegrate into civilian life, which affects the individual’s career, financial resources, and his or her ability to manage overwhelming, competing demands. The family also needs assistance in adapting once again to changes in its routine, and also preparing for the possibility that the family member will deploy again in the near future.
Counseling professionals also provide interventions when a service member returns home injured, and the family realizes the impact of the disability on their lives. They also counsel families when a service member loses his or her life overseas. At times, these counseling sessions require more than a few visits, or a referral to a psychologist or psychotherapist for more long-term therapy.
The number of emotional and behavioral issues addressed by military counselors varies widely according to the situation, but all situations result from an individual serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. And the ultimate goal of almost all military counselors is to help people understand and take action on career, work, marital or substance abuse problems.
If warranted, counselors can also get involved in more long-term therapies, such as exposure-based therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. More severe conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury usually require these longer term approaches, and require that counselors have advanced degrees and experience.
A number of counseling positions are available in the military, varying in scope and responsibility depending on the counselor’s background. Some branches also offer training programs for those wanting to become counselors. Civilian positions are also available for trained counselors wanting to work with military personnel and their families.
Many professionals seek a master’s degree in counseling, which requires about two to three years of work beyond a bachelor’s degree, plus supervised training. With this degree, individuals can then become licensed professional counselors – each state having its own licensing requirements. For those wanting to work as a civilian counselor for an organization contracted with the government to provide military counseling services, licensing is required.
Advanced or doctorate degrees in psychology are also available. These degrees take about five years to complete; four years for classes, and an internship in the fifth year. Doctoral level counseling psychologists from an accredited program also typically sit for licensure. For those in doctoral programs and seeking internships, the military offers a number of possibilities at military hospitals in exchange for a number of years of military service.
Training in counseling psychology differs from training in clinical psychology. Counselors work more on solutions to daily problems that arise and must be addressed for an individual or family to function in healthy ways, while clinical psychologists specialize more on assessing individuals for serious mental health illnesses, and treating those illnesses.
If you are interested in counseling psychology and working with military members and their families, several diverse employment opportunities are available. Request information from psychology schools to get started in this rewarding and in-demand career.