We want to help people. It’s a common reason many choose to become professional counselors. Maybe we’ve been told we’re good listeners. Maybe we have lived experience with overcoming mental health concerns. Whatever led us to counseling, we want to use our skills to help people. At some point, we may decide we want to help people in the military population: service members, veterans and their families. Perhaps we want to help military kids because we have a couple of our own, or we were one. Or, we want to support military spouses in post-military life because they’re an underserved and under-resourced population.
Having a clinical focus on serving the military population is admirable. More importantly, it’s necessary. With critical mental health access shortages in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DOD), and studies that show that community providers are not as culturally competent with the military population as VA and DOD clinicians, it’s essential to increase the military population’s access to timely and competent mental health services.
Counselors often ask me: How do I do it? I may want to serve veterans and their families, but how do I get there from here?
Here are some critical points to consider if you’re interested in working with the military-affiliated population.
Know why you’re doing it
Understanding your motivation for serving veterans is critical. More importantly, it’s an ethical responsibility for counselors. In order to give the highest quality of service to those we work with, as well as to be true to ourselves, we need to understand what it is that got us into this work and why we want to do it.
What are your personal and professional motivations to serve this population? Like me, are you a veteran yourself, or (also like me) a child of a veteran? Are you a military spouse who has the lived experience of your partner’s service? Or do you have no prior direct affiliation with the military, but happened to work with the population during your clinical training? Regardless of your background, it’s essential to understand why you chose this particular population to serve.
Understand your limitations
Along with why you’re doing it, it’s important to understand your limitations. This could mean that you may have some familiarity with one aspect of military culture but recognizing that you’re not an expert in all military culture. Or that you may come up against some things in your clinical work that you’re not prepared for, and you didn’t know would bother you. I remember several years ago when working with a veteran, a session in which they were recounting significant racial discrimination while they were in the military. This discrimination was the source of their depression rather than PTSD as most people (including the client) assumed. As I was listening to the veteran recount their story, I found myself getting angrier and angrier, to the point where I started to lose concentration and therapeutic objectivity. The former senior noncommissioned officer in me was offended at the experience.
What I didn’t realize was that this was a psychological reaction on my part to two different things: the blatant disregard for the military values that I hold dear shown by the veteran’s leadership, as well as my own unresolved emotional response to racial discrimination in my childhood. A classic example of countertransference. Counselors like me, who identify as military-affiliated, must assess for and address potential countertransference. Just because a counselor is a veteran doesn’t make them the best counselor for veterans, and we need to be aware of the limitations of our own personal experience.
Where do you start?
So understanding why we want to serve veterans is essential, and it’s also important to understand the limitations that we may face, but what about the practical aspects of serving this population? As in, specifically, how do you help? I often hear how difficult it is for professional counselors to serve in the VA (although the department is currently putting a lot of effort into creating more licensed professional mental health counselor positions). And if you’re not in the VA or DOD, but want to help veterans, where do you go? How do you find internships, post-graduate placement or positions for a fully licensed counselor?
There are several suggestions that I often give to those counselors who reach out to me, asking about how they find positions in the community that serve veterans. First, do some research in your area. Are there mental health clinics that primarily serve the military population? Organizations like the Cohen Veterans Network may be a useful resource for internships or to get your pre-licensure hours, or clinics like the one I work for, the Family Care Center, in Colorado Springs. Even if they are not currently taking interns, they may have some advice for you.
Another potential source for positions is to see if there are other veteran services in your community that would be willing to add a clinical component to them. For example, the Veterans Village of San Diego, a nationally recognized leader in serving homeless veterans since 1981, has 27 mental health interns as part of their staff. Organizations that provide employment, housing, legal and financial resources to veterans may be willing to include a mental health component to their services.
And finally, there is a national program that may be of some benefit. Give An Hour is a national network of volunteer clinicians who serve the military population. I often recommend it as a resource for those veterans and family members looking for support outside of my local area. It is also a way to connect with other like-minded professionals serving the military population. If you’re looking to serve veterans in your area, it’s a good idea to reach out to those who are already doing so and network with them. You can find a list of clinicians in your area who are working with the military by searching for providers in your zip code, and reaching out and connecting with them on LinkedIn or through email. It’s likely that you will find one or two who would be willing to sit down and talk and give some professional advice on what serving the military looks like in your location.
Serving those who served
Dedicating your professional career to serving those who served and those who care for them is admirable and not to be taken lightly. Like many other underserved populations, it is necessary to understand the unique culture of the military and how it impacts our clients. Through diligence in our preparation, we can make sure to provide the best care possible for those who sacrificed much on our behalf.
Duane France is a retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer and combat veteran who practices as a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the director of veteran service for the Family Care Center, a private outpatient mental health clinic specializing in service members, veterans and their families. He is also the executive director of the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is professionally affiliated with the Family Care Center. In addition to his clinical work, he writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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