Psychologists usually treat their patients in private offices, clinics, and hospitals, unable to observe them in “real life” applying the psychological interventions that they prescribed – except in one unique situation. Navy psychologists living and working aboard ships with their patients are actually given this unusual, real-life opportunity.
Psychologists who treat sailors interact with them daily. Sailors serve meals, clean the ship, and deliver mail, among a number of other workday tasks. They also participate in the same after-hour activities as the psychologists. This gives Navy psychologists the ability to directly observe how their interventions and treatments play out in the sailors’ lives. Some say that living on the boat with patients can get tricky, especially when becoming friends. Yet most assert that it’s a rewarding experience, and that by developing healthy personal boundaries it is possible to deflect any issues that might interfere with treatment and care.
The diversity and variety of clinical interventions a Navy psychologist applies also gives these mental health professionals a breadth and depth of experience that few can match. Living on a ship for several months presents challenges for all personnel – captains, officers and enlisted service members – and the on-board psychologist aids everyone, regardless of rank.
Sailors work long, arduous hours. They’re up before 6 a.m. for standing watches, drills, and training, and work late into the night. Living conditions are tight and uncomfortable, especially for junior enlisted members who share showers and bathrooms. And in most cases, these enlisted members are young, away from home for the first time, and lack emotional coping skills.
These living conditions can become stressful, sometimes leading to depression. For those with spouses and children at home, stress and anxiety over family issues result too. In many cases, Navy psychologists use short solution-based therapies, which involve asking the service member questions, getting him or her to develop positive goals, and envision preferred future outcomes. If depression or anxiety worsens, psychologists often employ cognitive-behavioral strategies to teach positive coping and adjustment.
Consulting and advising officers and those in leadership positions are also key responsibilities for Naval psychologists. Consultations involve discussing how to help troubled sailors, or those not functioning with daily responsibilities. Sometimes that means recommending a change in daily assignments or more intensive therapy.
Psychologists on ship also start and run groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, or groups that help sailors reduce anxiety through deep-breathing and muscle-relaxation exercises. Some teach entry-level psychology courses, or other courses on resiliency and healthy stress reduction practices.
Other Navy psychologists work on land at Naval training centers, training select Navy personnel how to deal with situations of capture, evasion, and how to handle interrogations. These elite service members are usually part of the U.S. Special Forces who are selected for advanced, high risk operations, and are training in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE program.
Naval and military hospitals, and medical clinics, are also places where Navy psychologists can intern and work, treating warriors from all the military’s armed services and their families. These facilities, along with Veterans hospitals, also hire civilian psychologists desiring to help those who serve the country.
Because of the increasing numbers of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related illnesses, the toll on military families has escalated. This has increased the demand for military psychological services. According to the 2007 article “Transforming Military Mental Health” in The Monitor, the number of required Navy psychologists is down 29%.
This article also stated that to meet increased needs, the military will recruit more psychologists by offering expanded load-repayment programs, signing bonuses, and bonuses for extended active duty. In addition, Naval hospitals and clinics are hiring civilian psychologists and other mental health professionals, and many nonprofit organizations that work with military personnel and their families are in need for psychologists.
The Navy also offers a number of well paid and challenging opportunities for internships, a requirement for students in graduate clinical psychology programs. Naval internships often provide better rotations and exposure to more clinical practice areas than internships in non-military facilities.
To get started on your journey toward a career as a psychologist, request information from schools offering psychology degrees. And if you want to help the men and women who serve the country, consider joining the Navy, or working as a civilian psychologist for a military hospital or healthcare clinic. 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.