Over a decade of war, brutal combat situations and multiple deployments have left troops and their families with mounting emotional pain and issues, prompting calls for more military psychologists.
The stress is palpable among those serving today. About 38% of soldiers and 31% of Marines report psychological symptoms after returning from deployments, according to Post-Deployment Health Re-Assessment data. After more than one deployment, those numbers jump higher to 40% of soldiers, and 35% of Marines.
Military psychologists help these struggling soldiers come to terms with their anxieties and stresses, equipping them with mental tools that allow them to tackle symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Service members struggling emotionally with what they’ve seen or experienced in combat have a number of ways to connect with these psychologists, in military clinics or veterans hospitals.
Where do Military Psychologists Work?
Military psychologists deploy with troops in all branches of the military – Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, National Guard and Reserves. Some of the locations they work at include:
- Aircraft carriers
- Overseas military bases
- Combat-stress detachments
- Forward Operating Bases
- Military Hospitals
Why do Soldiers Need Military Psychologists?
Wartime concerns like PTSD have far-reaching effects that extend beyond the battlefield. Soldiers with PTSD often report difficulties re-connecting with spouses, re-entering the workforce, and adjusting to civilian life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD can affect soldiers in some of the following ways:
- Flashbacks to combat or trauma
- Bad dreams
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling a strong sense of guilt, depression, or worry
- Being startled easily
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
While these symptoms can have strong negative effects on the life of a soldier, there are methods to relieve them.
Depending on the scope and extent of trauma, psychologists determine whether cognitive-behavioral therapy or exposure therapy, or a combination of both, will lead to the best health outcomes for soldiers. If the psychologist determines that an individual’s behavioral issues actually stem from issues going back to childhood, psychotherapy is also a treatment option.
Providing Treatment to Soldiers
Military psychologists offer soldiers a range of treatment options to best meet their needs. Typically, these come in the forms of cognitive behavioral therapies, or exposure therapies.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, cognitive behavioral therapy allows soldiers to re-examine and change how they think about the traumas they went through.
Psychologists work with soldiers to identify what thoughts cause stress in their lives, and how those thoughts make their symptoms worse. For example, many soldiers develop guilt over decisions they made during combat, and are unable to dispel feelings of responsibility from their minds
These moments could occupy their thoughts during every waking hour, essentially causing them to “relive” the event again and again. Psychologists teach soldiers to accept that events happened, but that many of the choices they made were out of their control.
Soldiers who experienced a traumatic event might avoid thinking about that event, or avoid situations that remind them of it.
Psychologists engaging soldiers with exposure therapy ask them to repeatedly talk about the event in the hopes of desensitizing them to the memory. With help from the psychologist, soldiers change how they react to stressful memories, and gain control of their thoughts surrounding trauma.
Helping Military Families
For family members struggling with deployment, a service member’s emotional injuries, a physical disability, or the death of a parent or spouse, many options are available.
Family members not close to military hospitals or clinics can receive help from psychologists who have either contracted with the military or accept TRICARE — insurance for military personnel and their families — delivering immediate treatments and interventions.
These psychologists assess family members, often coming up with solutions such as working with teachers, school counselors and parents on ways to ease a child’s conduct issues or falling grades. Alternatively, the psychologist might determine that a spouse left with managing the children, a job, and all associated household responsibilities needs the services of a support network or social service agency. These types of issues are especially pertinent for National Guard and Reserve family members who do not reside on a base with other military families, who usually form strong networks and bonds.
Because deployments have continued for a number of years, the U.S. Armed Services have stepped up efforts to connect psychologists with deployed troops, service members returning home, and military families. Additionally, the Department of Defense has started to focus on prevention programs called military and family readiness programs designed to address the psychological needs of service members and their family members before and after deployment.
Challenges Faced by Non-deployed Spouses
According to The National Association of School Psychologists, non-deployed spouses face almost as many challenges as deployed ones do. While their husbands or wives are away on the battlefield, they must take up new roles, and develop a new sense of purpose at home to provide for their family.
Some of these changes include:
- New roles, like becoming the disciplinarian, paying bills, starting a new job
- Loss of connection with the support and familiarity of the military community. Non-deployed spouses sometimes leave the base to live elsewhere during deployment.
- Emotional challenges in response to the demands of deployment, such as coping with new independence and anxieties surrounding it.
Becoming a Military Psychologist
Efforts by the military to serve its deserving members with body and mind health services has resulted in a serious shortage of psychologists in active duty. In 2007, the last year of available statistics, the American Psychological Association reported a 40% vacancy rate across all branches.
If you are an active service member, or civilian, and are considering returning to school to become a psychologist, the military often pays educational tuition, locates internships, and helps with certification. You are also guaranteed a job with benefits once you finish school.
Other organizations also need psychologists desiring to help warriors and their families. Many nonprofit organizations have formed specifically to address the shortage of military psychology professionals, offering counseling and therapy to service members and their families.
If providing psychological interventions, prevention, and therapies to either active duty service members, veterans or their families interests you, request information from schools offering 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.