New realities for military families present challenges for civilian counselors
In addition to the unique culture military families live in every day, the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have introduced tough new realities they've not seen before. Dr. Lynn K. Hall, Dean of the University of Phoenix College of Social Sciences, says that civilian mental health professionals who work with these families will benefit from a solid understanding of that culture so they can provide the best support possible. A shortage of resources in this area prompted her to produce a comprehensive book to help these counselors gain this critical understanding.
When you think about what a "typical" family is like, you might imagine the combination of personalities, expectations and roles that make up each unique family unit. Add military culture to the mix and a completely different kind of family dynamic emerges, complete with its own set of issues not often experienced by non-military families.
That's what Lynn K. Hall discovered in the 1990s when she was working for the U.S. Department of Defense as a civilian counselor at a high school in Germany. Hall's job was to counsel children of military members on everyday life and school issues. However, she quickly learned those children had more to deal with than most others their age. The first Persian Gulf War was underway, and many students had one parent, or sometimes both parents, deployed in the Gulf region. Her role became more critical not only for the teens' education success, but for their families as well. She soon discovered that the families as a unit also needed help coping.
"There were often no family counseling opportunities on a military installation," recalls Hall. "I often went beyond what a 'normal' school counselor would do because my background was in family counseling."
Circumstances faced by civilian counselors in a military culture
Although she was experienced in working with families, Hall soon realized that counseling military families required a whole new approach.
"I discovered a completely different culture, language and way of being," she admits. "The military is based on hierarchies. What probably was most striking to me is that the families didn't get to make choices. Decision makers outside of the family itself made all the choices for that family: where they move, where they live, where they shop and what schools they go to."
Hall says the biggest difficulty is understanding military culture: the commitment to the mission, the high level of parent or spouse absence, and knowing how to deal with officers versus enlisted grades. And of course, there's the constant moving.
"You might start working with a family and identify a number of issues to work on," says Hall. "Then either the servicemember gets pulled out for training or gets deployed, or the family is relocated and you never get to the heart of the issues. It's critical to jump in there and reduce the chaos, to find a short-term solution to even a part of their problem so they can take what they learned to the next place."
Circumstances faced by military families
Military families have unique circumstances that add interesting layers to the counseling situations. For example, the nomadic lifestyle can leave them feeling isolated because they're far from their own extended family. If their military family member dies it often takes place far from home, and in traumatic ways. Complicating things further, servicemembers are taught to be mission-focused, to look out for their comrades and to keep to the facts — leaving no room for dealing with the emotions of daily stresses and any violence they witness or experience firsthand. All of these can have a direct impact on family relationships.
"Any family has challenges in terms of just getting through their lives," says Hall. "But if you add the level of generalized trauma that a servicemember is going through and bringing back home, it complicates the work the family needs to do. Then, add on other layers of issues specific to military — like the stigma against getting help or transitioning back into a civilian life, for example — and the layers become intertwined."
Hall found that these issues intensified when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
Bridging the knowledge gap
As increasing numbers of servicemen and women were being deployed, Hall began delivering presentations at conferences across the United States about counseling military families through transition and deployment. In addition to her talks, she was inspired to write "Counseling Military Families: What Mental Health Professionals Need to Know," one of the first books to give civilian counselors an idea of who and what they're dealing with.
The idea for such a book came to Hall when she realized there wouldn't be enough military counselors to work with the spouses and children left behind. Civilian counselors — with little or no experience working in the military culture — would have to step in and help. Hall searched for resources to guide them, but the few she found where outdated. "I got the idea that maybe I should put everything I could find from articles and research into a one-stop resource," she says.
Hall knew firsthand that counselors would need to bridge the knowledge gap between their counseling expertise and the military culture. This was especially critical as multiple deployments, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and countless military personnel returning with serious or lifelong injuries figured more prominently in family counseling issues.
Published in 2008, "Counseling Military Families" serves as an introduction to help civilian counselors new to the military culture — a position Hall knows all too well — to understand and appreciate the realities these families live every day and to help them through it all. She incorporated her own experiences as examples and interviewed civilian counselors near military bases to provide a full understanding of the military culture and mindset, as well as the inherent challenges.
Since then, Hall says dozens of books on counseling military families have been written. While some provide broad-based information as her book does, others focus on a particular area such as PTSD, post-war adjustment, servicewomen in combat and surviving spousal deployment. The far-reaching, ongoing impact of the wars on military families shows just how critical these resources are for civilian counselors who are becoming more integrated into the care of these families — and how serious the issues are that confront America's military families.