Tag Archives: veterans

Suicide prevention strategies with the military-affiliated population

By Duane France and Juliana Hallows October 29, 2019

Every suicide is a tragedy affecting families, friends and whole communities, but when everyone works together to help those in need, suicide becomes preventable. All of us have a role to play in preventing service member, veteran, and military family (SMVF) suicide.

Within the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the community, professional counselors play a critical role in providing support to this population. Through a community public health approach with dedicated partners and a willingness to learn and adapt to the changing needs of veterans, we can prevent suicide and help individuals live, work and thrive in the community of their choice. Because professional counselors approach mental health from a wellness perspective, they are uniquely qualified to not only support military-affiliated clients, but to advocate for wellness approaches in the communities where they live and serve.

The federal government is working diligently to address suicide in a number of different ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a number of strategies created to reduce the number of deaths by suicide, and last year, the VA published a 10-year strategic plan outlining how all parts of the country can work together to support veterans. Additionally, President Trump recently signed an executive order known as the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), which establishes a task force to engage stakeholders nationwide in suicide prevention efforts.

Using a public health approach

Suicide prevention remains the VA’s top clinical priority, but the fact remains that no one person, organization or program can do it alone. The public health approach asks all facets of the community, including mental health professionals, to work together toward a solution. The VA, as a member of the community, has a critical opportunity to meaningfully connect to community stakeholders to save neighbors, family members and friends.

Every VA facility has a suicide prevention coordinator who is asked to step out of their facilities and into their communities to build relationships with community partners that are vested and connected to service members, veterans, their caregivers and their families. Through this model, researchers, clinicians and partners collaborate for suicide prevention by identifying community issues, developing and implementing strategies to address those issues (through maximizing protective factors and minimizing risk factors related to suicide), and creating an evaluative process for those implemented strategies.

Of the 20 million veterans nationwide, less than half use Veterans Health Administration services. That makes it challenging to identify veterans who may be at risk for suicide and to connect them with mental health care professionals, peer networks, employment, and other resources known to bolster protective factors and help with coping. As large and robust of a network as the VA is, this challenge cannot be solved by the VA alone.

Community hospitals, clinics, and health care professionals across the nation play a key role in preventing suicide because they are integrated into the local fabric of the SMVF community. VA partnerships with community health care providers expand access to care to SMVF members in the communities where they live, work and thrive. In addition, not all those who die by suicide necessarily access mental health care services prior to their deaths. This means that community organizations such as veterans groups, recreational teams, faith-based centers, and myriad other community supports can serve as potential collaborators to build on suicide prevention efforts.

Part of improving access and building a public health approach is identifying those who are part of the SMVF community. For example, the New Hampshire Legislative Commission on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury created an initiative for stakeholder agencies to add a question about service member and veteran status, thus improving referral and access to services within the SMVF community. By adding the question “Have you or a family member ever served in the military?” to intake, enrollment and health history forms, counselors create opportunities to discuss military experiences and their impact on clients’ lives. This provides the benefit of informing treatment and connecting individuals to SMVF-specific resources (see askthequestionnh.com/about/why-ask). Identifying the SMVF community can also happen across varying community services, thus strengthening care coordination and supports.

In addition to asking clients about their military status, professional counselors can be particularly helpful in building the public health approach by asking the following questions:

  • How is the community collecting and reporting data on SMVF suicides?
  • How are the local emergency rooms collecting data on suicide attempts?
  • Does the community have a strategic initiative to address SMVF suicides?

If there are no answers to these questions, counselors can work with their communities to implement more effective strategies. Communities can also implement these strategies beyond the service member and veteran populations to include caregivers and loved ones. There still is a long way to go in identifying and understanding all of the risk factors and protective factors for suicide among the spouses and children of service members and veterans.

Although the VA is expanding community care for the SMVF population, community health care providers need to develop the same level of military cultural competence as exhibited by providers within the VA. It is essential that health care providers understand the cultural issues related to military service that may give veterans mixed feelings about receiving health care. These cultural issues include:

1) Concerns that seeking care, particularly mental health care, will harm their careers, whether military or civilian.

2) Fears about how they could be perceived by others for seeking care, such as being seen as “weak” by their peers.

3) The belief that overall mission success is a greater priority than their own well-being.

In Phoenix, VA teams have partnered with the Arizona Coalition for Military Families to provide military culture training to local behavioral health providers. In Richmond, Virginia, the McGuire VA Medical Center partnered with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority to include VA resources on the state’s behavioral health website.

In addition to building cultural competency, community health care providers need to be able to offer the SMVF population the same type of evidence-based practices provided through the VA. This may be achieved through partnering with local VA providers on trainings that build on clinical skills for suicide prevention. The VA developed a Community Provider Toolkit (see mentalhealth.va.gov/communityproviders/index.asp) to help community providers, including counselors, gain a deeper understanding of military culture.

Through the public health approach, everyone has a role to play in preventing SMVF suicide. By considering level of risk and the factors beyond mental health that contribute to suicide, communities can deliver resources and support to SMVF populations earlier, before they reach a crisis point.

Maximizing protective factors

A critical component of SMVF suicide prevention is identifying the protective factors that prevent these individuals from getting into crisis. As noted in the CDC’s Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices (2017), there are many strategies to build up protective factors. Some of these protective factors include promoting connectedness, improving economic stability, and increasing education and awareness about suicide within the population and throughout the community. These strategies fit well into Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior, in which he proposes that individuals die by suicide when there is a desire and capacity to do so. He posits that a sense of isolation, feelings of burdensomeness, and an ability to engage in self-harm all correlate with increased risk of suicide.

Connectedness

Promoting connectedness in the military population helps to reduce a person’s sense of isolation. This strategy has two critical components: peer norm programs and community engagement activities. 

Counselors in the VA leverage community partnerships, promote family engagement, and encourage those around SMVF populations to ensure they remain connected to their loved ones and peers. The Veteran Resource Locator, for instance, links veterans and their loved ones, or community providers, with programs and services in their area, both within the VA and in the community. Counselors consistently look to engage family members in veterans’ treatment to increase their support systems. Local VA facilities conduct extensive outreach in the community to form partnerships with organizations in which veterans and service members are involved. For example, in Billings, Montana, the VA and community teams developed a local veterans meet-up group to help service members stay connected to their community during transition from active duty. Group members meet regularly for cookouts and conversation.

Counselors in the community can also support efforts to improve connectedness. For example, counselors can become familiar with peer support programs in their communities or get involved in the development of such programs if none exist. If organizations exist within the community that provide opportunities for the SMVF population to engage with others while supporting their community (e.g., Team Rubicon; Team Red, White & Blue; The Mission Continues; Travis Manion Foundation), counselors can get to know who is in the organization. Counselors can provide referrals to these organizations and invite representatives to speak to their colleagues.

Economic stability

A suicidal crisis in a member of the SMVF population does not happen in a vacuum. Increasing economic stability is a significant protective factor in preventing suicide. As service members transition out of the military, whether they have served for four years or 24 years, the majority are young enough to be able to continue in another career. When housing, employment and finances are not stable, this can cause additional stress for this population and increase feelings of burdensomeness.

Counselors in the community can maintain a list of referral agencies that support housing, employment and financial support. These organizations play an important role in reducing SMVF suicide, whether they realize it or not. If a service member or veteran is in financial crisis, they may be in a psychological crisis too.

The VA is increasingly working to support veterans in financial distress through the Financial Assistance for High Risk Veterans program. This program, available at many VA facilities, creates a partnership between local VA facility suicide prevention coordinators and revenue staff. Should a veteran with high risk of suicide also require assistance related to financial distress, the suicide prevention coordinator would connect the veteran to revenue staff. These staff would work personally with the veteran to apply for a VA financial hardship program that best fits the veteran’s financial situation.

As counselors in the community and the VA become aware of how financial stressors are interacting with the sense of burdensomeness in their clients, they can incorporate clinical moments to discuss and assess suicide risk while also developing strategies to build economic support. Together, clinicians inside and outside of the VA can bolster the network of housing, employment and financial assistance through reviewing what is available in the community and developing strong referral processes.

Education and awareness

A third protective factor is increasing community education and awareness about SMVF suicide and suicide prevention. This is yet another area in which professional counselors can make an impact. Counselors who are familiar with suicide prevention efforts can help others become familiar with them too. Providing greater awareness in the community is important. It is also critical to educate medical professionals about the problem. A large number of those who have died by suicide saw their primary care providers a month or less before their deaths (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12042175). Counselors can support their communities by facilitating or promoting gatekeeper training for those serving the military-affiliated population.

The VA has invested significantly in education around suicide. VA employees take annual suicide prevention training. VA facilities also conduct extensive community outreach to ensure that partners are aware of resources available to veterans and their families.

Counselors in the community can also take the initiative to become educated on SMVF suicide. The VA has partnered with PsychArmor Institute to provide free online access to the S.A.V.E. suicide prevention training (available at psycharmor.org/courses/s-a-v-e). In addition, VA suicide prevention coordinators partner with community providers to offer in-person training to those who need it. In their role as advocates, counselors can work with local leaders to provide clinical expertise connected to community suicide prevention efforts, whether that be public awareness campaigns or participation in local SMVF suicide prevention efforts.

Minimizing risk factors

Unfortunately, no matter how much we invest in preventive efforts, the possibility still exists that a member of the military-affiliated population will experience a suicidal crisis. When this happens, the community needs to be just as prepared to identify and reduce risk factors as it is to identify and implement protective factors. Both the CDC and the VA have identified more than a dozen risk factors that may lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors, but there are three areas where professional counselors can be especially helpful.

Access to care

Of all the risk factors and protective factors identified here, the area in which counselors are most likely to be naturally involved is improving access to safer care. When it comes to the military-affiliated population, this means improving culturally competent care, reducing barriers to care, and reducing the mental health provider shortage for those organizations that serve this population.

The VA has done much to improve access to care for veterans, including the expansion and promotion of the Veterans Crisis Line (VeteransCrisisLine.net), a 24-hour service that veterans can call, text, or chat with at any time to receive immediate support. The VA also provides same-day access for veterans in need of mental health care and has built a robust telemental health and call center network that can direct veterans to get the care they need. In addition, the VA sponsors Coaching Into Care (mirecc.va.gov/coaching), a free service that educates, supports and empowers family members and friends who are seeking care for loved ones who are veterans. In addition, the DoD expanded nonmedical mental health services for the SMVF population up to a full year after leaving active duty.

Counselors in the community must be just as ready as their colleagues in the VA to improve access to care. It is incumbent upon counseling professionals to ensure that they develop and maintain an understanding of the unique psychological challenges faced by the SMVF population and that they are available to serve those individuals who do not access care through the VA or DoD.

Community counselors also have the ability to be important advocates for the profession through mentorship, collaboration and consultation. Increasing the number of veterans and military family members who consider careers in the mental health field is an excellent way to improve access to care for this population.

Lethal means safety

One area that deserves discussion but often goes unmentioned is the need for counselors to address the ability of clients to engage in self-harm. This includes talking about lethal means safety, particularly with those in the military-affiliated population.

Veterans are more likely to die from firearm-related suicide than are those in the general U.S. population, according to the VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (see mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/data.asp). Safe storage of lethal means is any action that builds in time and space between a suicidal impulse and the ability to harm oneself. It addresses how to be safe from any lethal means, including firearms, prescription medications, and suicide hot spots.

This topic can be sensitive, especially because veterans have experience with and are comfortable with firearms. Effective lethal means safety counseling is collaborative, veteran-centered, and consistent with their values and priorities. Although the most preferred way of preventing SMVF suicide is to keep these individuals from going into crisis in the first place, lethal means safety plans are critical to preparing for suicidal crises should they arise.

The VA has made significant efforts to impact the conversation around lethal means safety. For example, it distributes free gunlocks to veterans and provides safe medication disposal envelopes at facilities across the country. The VA also recently instituted a nationally standardized safety planning template that ensures veterans have high-quality suicide prevention safety plans. Veterans and their providers work together to complete the plans, which identify innovative and feasible actions that can be taken to reduce access to lethal means. Suicide prevention coordinators within the VA have participated in firearm shows and fairs, providing materials and gunlocks directly to gun owners in their communities through partnering with local firearm groups.

Counselors in the community must be just as informed and prepared as counselors in the VA to discuss lethal means safety. They should be aware of locations that provide out-of-home firearm storage in the community and be able to have honest discussions with clients about when and how to use these resources. Counselors can partner with other community agencies to identify these resources. For example, the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus have established the Colorado Gun Storage Map, provided for those community members seeking local options for temporary, voluntary firearm storage (see coloradofirearmsafetycoalition.org/gun-storage-map).

Counselors must take the same care when it comes to storage of prescription medications. In addition, community counselors may be more able than their VA counterparts to partner with local law enforcement to identify and mitigate suicide hot spots.

Postvention

A final area that counselors must address to reduce the risk of suicide in the SMVF population is postvention. Engaging service members, veterans, families, and providers after a suicide loss can promote healing, minimize adverse outcomes for those affected, and decrease the risk of suicide contagion. Postvention is critical to preventing additional suicides in the immediate social network of the person who died by suicide. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide have a greater probability of attempting suicide than do those bereaved by other causes of death. Those bereaved by another person’s suicide are also at increased risk for several physical and mental health conditions.

Community providers play a significant role in postvention. Clients who have attempted suicide are at a higher risk for future attempts unless the underlying problems that led to the attempt are addressed. Community providers are also important in addressing postvention needs in those left behind because of a death by suicide, such as the spouse and child of a service member or veteran. Whereas veterans may be served through the VA and service members may be served through the DoD, spouses and children of service members and veterans may not have access to the resources they need. This is where professional counselors in the community can offer support. For example, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) has excellent postvention resources for coping with loss (see save.org/find-help/coping-with-loss).

The VA has implemented processes to increase postvention efforts in its facilities. The VA provides its staff with suicide postvention guidance that can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual facility. Postvention efforts should include everyone who might have been affected by the death, including veterans, their families, and employees. Following a suicide, efforts are made to promote healing and support the deceased veteran’s family. Many local VA organizations have partnerships with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (taps.org/suicideloss) to provide support to veterans’ family members and friends.

Additionally, the free, confidential Suicide Risk Management Consultation Program (mirecc.va.gov/visn19/consult) is available to assist staff with training on postvention. This program provides consultation, support and resources that promote therapeutic best practices for providers working with veterans at risk of suicide. It offers tailored, one-on-one support with consultants who have years of experience with veteran suicide prevention.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s job

The strategies to prevent suicide in the SMVF population are as complex as the risk factors for suicide itself. Unlike other challenges that SMVF clients face, such as homelessness and unemployment, success in reducing suicide is not clearly defined. If clients are housed, they are no longer homeless, and if clients are employed, they are no longer unemployed. The measure of success in suicide reduction is not just the absence of suicidal self-harm, however, but the presence of a life worth living and an overall level of wellness in the client.

This is where professional counselors can play a role in their clients’ lives and in their communities. Members of the military-affiliated population have sacrificed and served, regardless of when, where and how they served. It is necessary — and possible — to serve them in return, providing them the life of wellness and stability that they desire and deserve.

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For more information and resources, visit mentalhealth.va.gov and veteranmentalhealth.com. Additional resources for veterans, families, and community providers can be found at BeThereForVeterans.com and MakeTheConnection.net

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Duane France is a retired Army noncommissioned officer, combat veteran, and licensed professional counselor. He is the director of veteran services for the Family Care Center, a privately owned outpatient mental health clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that specializes in serving the military-affiliated population. He also writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast, Head Space and Timing (veteranmentalhealth.com), and writes the monthly “From Combat to Counseling” column for CT Online.

Juliana Hallows is a national board certified and professionally licensed counselor. She serves veterans, their families, and communities through the VA National Suicide Prevention Program, where she is a health system specialist for policy and legislation.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Related reading: Counseling Today‘s September cover story, “Making it safe to talk about suicidal ideation

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

From Combat to Counseling: Comprehensive mental health in the military-affiliated population

By Duane France October 17, 2019

Often, when talking about mental health in the military-affiliated population, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is true of mental health professionals as well.

Once, a colleague asked me how many deployments I had in my military career. When I told her that I had five combat and operational deployments, she said, “Well, of course you have PTSD!” In reality, the number of deployments doesn’t dictate the level of traumatic events to which a service member has been exposed. A client could have multiple deployments and not have experienced anything worse than separation from family, whereas another client could have experienced only one very serious and traumatic deployment.

It is important to understand what we are talking about when we discuss mental health in the military-affiliated population. It is critical to understand the culture of the military and to understand who we are talking about. However, as mental health professionals, it is equally important to understand the potential psychological impacts that our clients have experienced.

 

PTSD

Although PTSD is not representative of everything that service members deal with after the military, it is a condition that any counselor working with the military population must understand. It has been described in a number of different ways throughout history, including “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, and “battle fatigue” in World War II and the Korean War. After the Vietnam War, the symptoms that would come to signify PTSD were called “post-Vietnam syndrome.” It wasn’t until the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 1980, that PTSD became an official diagnosis.

There are a number of PTSD diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5, the most significant of which is that the service member must have been exposed to an event that resulted in death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or sexual violence. The service member or veteran must have been exposed either through direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to such trauma, or experiencing indirect exposure to details of the trauma in the course of professional duties. This is significant. Just because a service member was deployed to a combat zone does not mean that the service member was exposed to an event that meets this criterion; this was certainly true for three of my five deployments. Being able to differentiate between PTSD and other psychological conditions is critical to supporting the client.

 

TBI

Another condition emerging as an important consideration is traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is also known as a concussion or mild, moderate, or severe TBI. Military equipment and medical response have improved significantly over the past 50 years, resulting in greater survivability on the battlefield. Injuries that previously might have been fatal are now being treated quickly and effectively. While this development has reduced the mortality rate in recent conflicts, it has led to an increase in the number and severity of catastrophic injuries.

Further complicating TBI is the fact that many of its symptoms overlap with those of PTSD, and many of the conditions that could cause TBI also meet criterion A for PTSD. Whether it is a blunt force trauma concussion from a direct blow to the head or a diffuse TBI caused by blast overpressure from an explosion, the causes of TBI could also be causes for PTSD (and vice versa).

 

Addiction

Addiction is another important mental health consideration in the military-affiliated population. This of course includes substance use. Many of us who served know that the military is a drinking culture. Drinking is normalized and used to relax, to celebrate, to memorialize. Regardless of rank or branch of service, alcohol is acceptable and available.

It is problematic, however, when the reason for alcohol use changes from celebration to self-medication, or using alcohol to reduce discomfort from psychological concerns. Additionally, the opioid epidemic in the veteran population typically begins during active duty. Because of the extreme chronic pain that results from multiple injuries, pain management is a necessary consideration, and painkillers are readily available.

In addition to substance use, it is also imperative to explore process addictions in the military-affiliated population. Whether it involves gambling, viewing pornography, compulsive eating or shopping, compulsive and addictive behaviors can cover the veteran’s or service member’s underlying concerns.

 

Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Victor Perez Vargas/defense.gov

Emotional dysregulation

Difficulty tolerating and managing emotions is another significant aspect of mental health for the military-affiliated population. While there are certainly emotional components to PTSD, TBI and addiction, it is also possible for emotional challenges to exist apart from substance use, trauma exposure or physical injury. For many service members and veterans, the typical dysregulated emotions are depression, anxiety and anger.

Among the nontraumatic causes for an inability to manage these emotions are toxic leadership and systemic harassment. An inability to escape from an adverse situation can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. I will emphasize again that there are many situations in the military that could cause anger, anxiety and depression that have nothing to do with exposure to traumatic events. It is necessary to determine whether emotional dysregulation or substance use is the result of traumatic exposure or another cause.

These aspects of mental health are not unique to the military of course. Combat trauma is not the only cause of PTSD, and any significant blow to the head can cause TBI. Addiction is not a problem just for the military population, and emotional concerns such as depression and anxiety are widespread. Additionally, these conditions follow the medical model of mental health; there is a diagnosis for each of them and corresponding medications for each of them. Although these conditions can be debilitating in and of themselves, there are other factors unique to the military population that can complicate attempts to treat service members, veterans and their families.

 

Meaning and purpose

Although service in or affiliation with the military can be difficult, it can also be extremely satisfying. There is a collective effort toward a common goal, a sense of shared culture and community, and a feeling that the work you’re doing is important. Many veterans, upon leaving the service, struggle to find the same satisfaction in their post-military careers. Many are able to build a meaningful life after the military, but it is not automatic.

There is also the challenge of navigating an identity shift. Whether it’s for four years, 14 years or 24 years, the service member’s identity is closely tied to the military. We were Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, or Coast Guardsmen literally 24 hours a day. Even if not serving full time, as is the case in the National Guard or Reserve components, service members are always aware of a type of double life. When we leave the service, many of us ask ourselves, “Who am I if I’m not a soldier?” A friend of mine, a medically retired Green Beret, expressed this quite well when he stated, “The Army said I couldn’t be me anymore. What do I do now?

 

Moral injury

Another concept that has emerged over the past 25 years is moral injury. PTSD, at a very basic level, is an injury of the behavior. It is classic conditioning: When a triggering event occurs, a certain reaction is initiated. It is, of course, more complicated than that, but a significant aspect of PTSD is stimulus response. TBI, on the other hand, is a physical injury of the brain. Moral injury can be described as an injury of the soul: What a service member believes to be right and wrong with the world has been fundamentally changed.

In one of the first articles to fully develop an explanation of moral injury, Brett Litz and colleagues described moral injury as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” There is some disagreement as to whether moral injury is an aspect of PTSD or its own distinct condition. the fact is that one can have a morally injurious event that is not traumatic, and there are a number of traumatic events that are not morally injurious. Regardless, it is beneficial for anyone interested in working with the military population to familiarize themselves with moral injury and to at least explore the concept with these clients.

 

Needs fulfillment

The military is a highly connected communal society where tasks are divided among its members. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t have to worry about where my food and water would come from because there were other service members or contractors who provided that. When my family and I arrived at a new duty station, we were provided housing, and there were people on base who gave us guidance on schools for our children.

Of course, when service members leave the military, those same needs still have to be fulfilled, but now it must be done in different ways. This isn’t to suggest that service members aren’t capable on their own, but challenges related to employment and housing — those lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — are widely known in the veteran population. Even our psychological needs, such as belongingness and esteem, are part of the military framework. Our peer group is provided for us; like them or love them, the people you serve with are your family. Your effort is recognized with rank or reward. Outside of the military, however, we have to learn how to meet those old needs in new ways … and for some service members, that can be difficult.

 

Relationships

The final aspect of mental health in the military-affiliated population that I’ll discuss is relationships. Our mental health affects our interactions with others, and our interactions with others affects our relationships. Whether it is frequent separation, moving households every three or four years, or relationships with people who are literally on the other side of the world, the relationships of those in the military population are necessarily different from those who have never served.

When considering how military service impacts relationships and vice versa, it is important to understand that this doesn’t just refer to intimate relationships such as spouses and children, or even parents and siblings. This also includes peer relationships (friends and acquaintances) and work relationships. Understanding how to integrate into a community that has a different cultural orientation than you do is difficult. Even if none of the other psychological concerns mentioned in this article are prominent, adapting relationships to a new lifestyle can be challenging.

 

Considering all aspects of psychological wellness

It can be daunting to consider how these various aspects may interact to provide an almost never-ending combination of circumstances for members of the military-affiliated population. One thing is clear though: The more of these areas that the service member, veteran, or military family member has difficulty in, the more at risk they are.

As professional counselors, we need to be able to understand the complexity of our clients’ conditions. We need to ensure that we have a full picture of their needs and then address those needs if possible. If an area is outside of our expertise — if we are not trained in an evidence-based practice for PTSD, for example — then we have an ethical responsibility to refer that client to someone who can meet their needs.

In this way, we are providing the best possible care for those who serve, those who have served, and those who care for them.

 

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Duane France, LPC

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 duane@veteranmentalhealth.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

From Combat to Counseling: Service members, veterans and military family mental health

By Duane France July 14, 2019

 

This is the debut article of what is intended to be a monthly online column about counseling military-affiliated clients.

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Service members, veterans and their families face some unique challenges both during and after military service. There’s the stuff that is widely known — deployments, constant moving, a regimented lifestyle — and then there’s the stuff that isn’t so well-known. This includes the experience of living in a mutually supportive community; a lack of individualism and getting used to relying on others while others rely on you; for veterans, a lack of purpose and meaning in post-military life; for family members, experiencing the aftermath of the military, because it’s a stressful job. No one is getting out of the military without a couple of dents in the fender.

Sometimes, the challenges faced by the military population turn into crisis. The high rate of suicide in the service members, veterans and their families (SMVF) community is well-known. Given a higher level of exposure to trauma, service members and veterans may be more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions. And with greater physical danger comes a higher risk of catastrophic injury, which comes with its own problems, including the need to adjust to a new reality.

This is where the counseling profession comes in. As clinical mental health professionals, we are uniquely qualified to help the SMVF population live the life that they desire and deserve. We look at mental health from a wellness perspective, not an illness perspective. People with a military background will reject the concept of “sickness” and “brokenness” because, to them, that’s equal to weakness. If someone approaches a service member, veteran or military family member with pity, as if they’re a broken-winged bird, there will probably be a bit of a confrontation.

I know, because I’m a member of this community.

Who am I?

I retired from the U.S. Army in 2014 after a 22-year career. After retiring, I took on a new mission to help my brothers and sisters in arms, and their families, adjust to the circumstances that put some of those dents in their fenders. After several years of clinical work, I realized that my lived experience combined with my clinical background could help others. Which is where this column comes in.

Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing some of my insights about the culture and character of the military. Even though the need is great, the counseling profession doesn’t include a lot of people like me — former service members who have become professional counselors. As a matter of fact, that is what brought me to the profession — a chance encounter at just the right time and someone saying exactly the right thing to someone who was open to hearing it.

I was not a mental health professional when I was in the Army. I was in logistics, which is the Army’s euphemistic way of describing supply and transportation. In 2007, knowing that I would eventually have to leave the military, I started going back to school while I was deployed to Iraq. I was looking for a degree with the least amount of math possible and came across an associate degree in counseling and applied psychology. I thought that might make me a better leader, and I was interested in psychology, so I figured why not?

Fast-forward nearly a year. My unit was redeploying from Iraq after 15 months, and we were participating in post-deployment reintegration sessions. We all went to a conference center at a local hotel, where we were presented with breakout sessions on not going too wild with our drinking, not being mean to the neighbors … that kind of thing.

One of the breakout sessions was led by a counselor from the local Vet Center. For those of you not familiar with Vet Centers, they are outpatient mental health clinics that are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) but separate from the main VA health care system. The counselors at the Vet Centers are typically veterans themselves, as was the case with this clinician. She introduced herself and said that she was a retired Air Force officer. I don’t remember much of what she talked about that day, but something she said struck me then and stays with me now: “By the way, if any of you are interested in psychology, consider a career in the mental health industry. There are not enough combat veterans in our field.”

That’s all it took. Up until that point, I had not considered becoming a mental health counselor. After that, I started on the path that I’m on now and, with the help of many mentors along the way, currently work as a counselor at a private outpatient clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that primarily serves the military population.

What the counselor said that day was correct then, and it still holds true now: There are not enough veterans in the counseling career field serving others in the military population. At the same time, that truth does not minimize the need for mental health counseling for the military population. There are two solutions to this: Bring more veterans into the counseling profession, and help those clinicians in the counseling profession who are not veterans to understand more about the unique needs of the military population.

As professional counselors, we recognize the need to be culturally competent with whatever client populations we work. We can’t work with someone from another culture without knowing about that culture; the ACA Code of Ethics clearly identifies this.

In that sense, the military population is an entirely different culture. Anything that defines the characteristics of a culture — ways of dressing, language, conceptualization of the world — applies to the military. I often describe it this way: It’s as if I went to England to live for 22 years and then moved back to the United States. Sure we spoke the same general language in those two countries, but there were also significant cultural differences between them and, therefore, adjustments that I needed to make. That’s how service members and their families feel after military service.

So, the goals of this column will be:

  • To provide insights into the culture of military-affiliated clients
  • To support counselors who find themselves working with service members, veterans and their families
  • To answer questions (if you have any, feel free to drop me a line at duane@veteranmentalhealth.com)

Thank you for your willingness to serve the military-affiliated population and for your willingness to learn more. Your efforts are greatly appreciated

 

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Duane France, LPC

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 duane@veteranmentalhealth.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Hooah! Thoughts and musings on Operation Immersion

By Janet Fain Morgan January 3, 2017

Hooah: Military slang referring to or meaning “anything and everything except ‘no.’” Used predominantly by soldiers in the U.S. Army.

 

My father was in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years. I grew up as a military dependent, relocating every few years (and attending more than 20 schools) until I graduated high school. I joined the Army Reserve, later married my husband, a U.S. Navy submariner, and he eventually ended up retiring from the Army after 20 years. My eldest son joined the Army out of college and is currently on active duty.

I have been a licensed professional counselor in Augusta, Georgia; Bamberg, Germany; Lakewood, Washington; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Columbus, Georgia; and most recently, Somerset, Kentucky. As a member of the American Counseling Association and the Military and Government Counseling Association (a division of ACA), I am concerned about the rising number of suicides among our military veterans. On a related note, I am also concerned by the limited number of education and training opportunities available to counselors who are dedicated to the specific needs of military clients.

This past year, the Kentucky Counseling Association (KCA), a state branch of ACA, advertised a training program for counselors called Kentucky Operation Immersion. The program offered an immersion experience into military culture that aimed to help counselors become aware of the unique culture and specific needs of military clients. The training educated counselors on how better to help soldiers as they transition back from wartime environments overseas and reintegrate into a civilian society.

Only about 1 percent of the U.S. population actually serves in the military. Many people do not understand the difference between the military mindset and the civilian frame of mind. For that reason, I was impressed and excited to see that KCA was addressing a very important topic that can make a difference to our military members.

As a counseling professional and former soldier, I jumped at the opportunity to train with the Army National Guard at the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center. The Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities (DBHDID) and the Kentucky Army National Guard presented and sponsored the training, and many of their respective department members joined in the training. I had no idea what I had signed up for, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.

I arrived to join approximately 30 other participants from a variety of specialties, including drug and alcohol counselors, psychologists, school counselors and Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs employees. The participants ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s.

Day One: Basic training

On the first day — basic training — we were introduced to the training leaders, department heads and Army National Guard soldiers who would mentor us throughout the training. We were issued our field equipment, including Kevlar helmets and flak jackets, which we would wear during our training for the next three days. Removing the metal plates that are normally part of the bulletproof garment decreased the flak jacket’s weight. Even so, the jacket was still heavy and served as a constant reminder of what soldiers wear to protect themselves during deployment.

Our first training exercise was an introduction to platoon formation and marching, but this version was much kinder than what I had experienced in my Army basic training days. Regardless, I found myself unable to maintain the pace of the platoon. This bruised my ego and provided a gentle indicator of the physical limitations I might encounter in the training exercises to come. And come they did …

The author, second from right in the back row, with fellow members of her Operation Immersion training squad.

The Field Leadership Reaction Course was a team-building exercise (obstacle course) that further introduced me to my counselor peers. We had fun coordinating our navigation of the ropes, walls and boards to achieve successful outcomes. Then Kentucky weather intervened, and we headed for shelter from tornadoes, storms and heavy rains. Chow took place in the mess hall with service members who invited us to ask them questions about the military and their military experience.

That evening we met Bobby Henline, an American hero, comedian and motivational speaker who served four tours of duty in Iraq. During his fourth tour, he was the sole survivor of a roadside bombing that left a third of his body burned. He shared his survival story and his outsize sense of humor with us. Bobby participated with us throughout the training and was an inspiration to us all. His humor helped lighten the serious moments, and his encouragement was invaluable. It was a true honor to meet him and a blessing to spend time with him.

Sleep was sweet after such a full first day.

Day One counseling takeaway: Military training is demanding physically and challenging mentally. Build relationships with military clients by asking about their training and work environments. Ask questions about any military-specific acronyms that they use. Many people know what an MRE (meal ready to eat) is, but fewer are familiar with what FOB (forward operations base) or TOC (tactical operations center) represent. Get to know these clients’ personal stories. This can shed light on what might be troubling them and why they are seeking counseling.

Day Two: Mobilization

Day Two arrived early — at 5 a.m. — and there we were, in formation, doing PT (physical training). Mobilization day started with breakfast in the chow hall, and then we had a class on sexual assault prevention. That morning we also heard personal stories of deployment from individual soldiers. Their stories spoke of bravery, tragedy, courage and, sometimes, boredom. All the stories touched our souls. In fact, when the program participants looked back over those days of classes, physical challenges and training, we decided the deployment stories were what we would remember most.

After a class on combat-related trauma, we headed to the SIM (Simulation) Center, where we ate MREs and enjoyed the virtual combat simulators in the forms of EST (Engagement Skills Training with Night Vision), IED (Improvised Explosive Device training instruction), HEAT (Humvee Egress Awareness Training Simulator) and CSF2 (Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness).

That evening, we were briefed by the commander, Capt. Michael Moynahan, and heard another personal deployment story from Maj. Amy Sutter, a licensed clinical social worker. Her mental health perspective on deployment was invaluable, and we also gained insight on deployment from a female viewpoint.

Day Two counseling takeaway: Deployment is rough, both mentally and physically. The living arrangements are complex, and soldiers have many challenges related to isolation and loneliness. At the same time, privacy is often limited. Build the therapeutic relationship by asking your military clients about any and all deployments. Each deployment offers military members challenges and unique perspectives. These could be explored through open-ended questions about their personal experiences. Be aware that some of these clients have seen or done things that they do not want to disclose or remember.

Day Three: Deployment

Deployment day again came early, with PT that included a warmup and running track. Classwork began with a briefing on substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. After listening to a suicide prevention panel, we headed out on a bus to the Gwynn City MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site for our deployment training.

The Army National Guard launched a few simulated IED attacks in the direction of our bus and also created a machine gun simulation to get us “in the mood” for our urban warfare exercises. Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Roberge led the military demonstrations and the exercises to prepare us for clearing a building of enemy personnel. The smooth, precise and sharp Army National Guard soldiers modeled the intricate procedure for us, and in teams of four, we attempted to reproduce the action with our military-style paintball weapons.

Our attempt was a less than perfect assault, with paintballs flying everywhere and Kentucky counselors doing their best to come out of the training exercise unscathed. That said, there was much laughter and excitement throughout, and everyone emerged feeling abundant respect for our U.S. military, and especially the group of professionals who worked with us during our training experience.

Dinner that evening was a relaxing outdoor cookout, during which we said goodbye to many of the soldiers who were leaving for their drill weekend. Awards were given, speeches were made and the treasured “challenge coins” — engraved with a unit’s or organization’s insignia or motto and given as a sign of respect — were secretly passed from palm to palm.

Day Three counseling takeaway: Military members face death often and rely on their training and peers to stay safe. Their training is precise and has to be executed perfectly every time, or the soldiers and their companions run the risk of becoming casualties. A high level of stress accompanies each operation, and sometimes that stress may last for days, weeks or even months, with little or no downtime for the soldier. The residual effects from this intense training and the soldier’s subsequent experiences can last a lifetime. Counselors should understand the deleterious effects of combat. Even if operations are carried out perfectly, casualties can occur, accidents can happen and the effects can be devastating.

Day Four: Demobilization

Demobilization day was early to rise — 4:50 a.m. — so we could clean the barracks, pack our bags and return the gear. Breakfast was quick, but then our first speaker arrived to awaken our senses. Capt. Phil Majcher spoke about his role as battalion chaplain and the duties that were part of the military chaplaincy. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, giving many of us moral points to ponder.

Linda Ringleka, military and national liaison from Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health System, joined Capt. Majcher. Together, they led a workshop on suicide prevention and ACE (Ask, Care, Escort) training. The counselors participated in small group activities that included role-plays and real-time suicide scenarios.

Sgt. Brooks, a female soldier, offered to speak with the female trainees about her experiences as a woman in the military with two deployments under her belt. Gathering together as women, we heard her personal story of courage, determination, struggling as a single mom and the challenges of being female in the Army. Her story was incredible and touched each of us. I must also mention that watching Sgt. Brooks throughout the entire training was like witnessing a master of all trades. She did everything that her male counterparts did, and with effortless perfection.

As we wrapped up the training, pictures were taken and awards were announced. Heath Dolen, DBHDID program administrator, presented each of us with a certificate, and a coveted challenge coin was passed secretly in a handshake.

As I drove home, I reflected on the immense amount of information and knowledge we had all gained as mental health professionals. This training was invaluable in providing us with skills to help soldiers as they return from difficult and sometimes horrific experiences. Many of these potential clients need to know that the counselors assisting them do actually understand some of the hardships they have endured. Counselors must gain the trust of hurting service members before many of them will disclose the horrors that they witnessed or even participated in during a deployment to a war zone.

The rules that we typically live by in our society do not always correspond to the experiences that soldiers see and live through. The camaraderie of this very tightknit community is exceptional, and counselors must understand the underlying military culture and gain the trust of these soldiers to be as effective as possible. Of that, I am certain.

I highly recommend that all mental health care professionals who take care of our soldiers undergo the type of training offered in Operation Immersion. Our heroes deserve the best that mental health professionals can give them, and this training definitely moved us in that direction.

 

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Janet Fain Morgan is a military family life counselor licensed in Kentucky and Georgia. She is a faculty member of William Glasser International and a member of the Military and Government Counseling Association, a division of ACA. She is also a former soldier. Contact her at JMFainMorgan@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Suicide statistics highlight veteran population’s acute need for counseling, inside and outside of the VA

By Bethany Bray September 12, 2016

The rate of veteran deaths by suicide increased 32 percent between 2001 and 2014, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). When compared with the U.S. civilian population, veterans have a 21 percent higher risk of dying by suicide.

The VA is calling the report, released in August, its most comprehensive analysis of rates of veteran suicides. The agency compiled data from more than 55 million veterans records from 1979 to 2014 from every U.S. state.

Among the findings was that between 2001 and 2014, the rate of suicide deaths among U.S.

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Clark Lane/defense.gov

veterans who used VA services increased 8.8 percent, whereas the suicide rate among veterans who did not use VA services increased 38.6 percent during that time frame.

In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day; approximately six per day were users of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services.

“The VA’s latest report on veteran suicide is the most comprehensive to date and should be a call to arms for everyone in our profession who works with this population,” says Jeff Hensley, a Navy veteran who is an American Counseling Association member and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas.

“The data clearly shows that getting help, helps,” continues Hensley, a leadership fellow with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and director of clinical and veteran services at Equest, a therapeutic riding program in North Texas. “Those veterans who seek care have a suicide rate significantly lower than those who get no care at all. However, the VA is stretched to capacity — and many of those veterans who need help the most are either not registered with the VA or ineligible due to their discharge status. This leaves a significant gap between those who need help and the resources available to provide it. As professional counselors, we can step in and meet this need. Whether we work in community agencies serving veterans or volunteer our time with nonprofits like Give An Hour, counselors are in a unique position to significantly lower this troubling statistic.”

Other key findings in the VA report include:

  • In 2014, veterans made up 8.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, yet they accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide. In 2010, veterans composed 9.7 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 20.2 percent of deaths by suicide.
  • In 2014, roughly 67 percent of all veteran deaths by suicide involved firearms.
  • Roughly 65 percent of veterans who died by suicide in 2014 were age 50 or older.
  • In 2014, rates of suicide were highest among veterans ages 18 to 29. Rates of suicide among veterans age 70 or older were lower than were rates of suicide for the civilian population in the same age group.

Overall, U.S. rates of suicide have increased by 24 percent during the past 15 years.

The rate of veteran suicide gained public attention in 2012, when the VA released a report saying that 22 American veterans died by suicide every day of the year. That number has decreased to 20 per day (in 2014) in this most recent report.

In response, the VA has beefed up support services, including the creation of a toll-free crisis hotline and expanding telemental health care programs.

However, these efforts don’t address one glaring omission: Professional counselors are often excluded from jobs at VA facilities. A 2006 law recognized “licensed professional mental health counselors” and “marriage and family therapists” as mental health providers within the VA health care system. However, 10 years later, few VA job postings include counselors as candidates to fill those positions, and even fewer licensed counselors are actually hired.

“It’s noteworthy that within the ‘nation’s largest analysis of veteran suicide,’ there is no mention of words such as ‘medication,’ ‘pharmaceuticals,’ ‘counselor’ or ‘counseling,’” says Natosha Monroe, an Army veteran and Texas LPC who is a co-leader of ACA’s Veterans Interest Network. “I would be interested to know what exactly isn’t working in current treatment trends. I would love to see veterans have just as much access to nonpharmaceutical treatments such as professional counseling as they do VA psych meds.”

As Monroe recounts, “While working at the Pentagon [as an operations noncommissioned officer for comprehensive soldier fitness], I was literally told by a decision-maker that licensed professional counselors are not needed in the Army and that I should stop asking because that wasn’t going to change. I was told that ‘the current behavioral health providers are adequate.’ Well, the statistics say otherwise. I think it’s time to allow LPCs and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to do our jobs. Our professions are the most specifically qualified to address the issues that troops and their families most often face: cognitive issues, transition issues and family challenges.

“It’s unfortunate that counselors and therapists are the only [mental health] professions completely excluded from every military branch,” Monroe says. “It’s frustrating that I am not allowed to be a behavioral health officer because I am a highly qualified LPC,” she continues. “Our professions are also the only ones blatantly discriminated against within the VA system despite Congress mandating our equal hiring — it still isn’t happening.”

“I’m not saying that correlation is causation, but I am definitely saying that veteran suicide rates are increasing, and there is persistent discrimination and exclusion of our profession,” Monroe concludes.

 

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Read the VA report in full here

 

Read a VA press release about the report here

 

Contact the Veterans Crisis Line or find out more at veteranscrisisline.net

 

Get involved with or find out more about ACA’s Veterans Interest Network here

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.