More Troops, Families Tapping Into DoD Counseling Services

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2006  - With high operational tempos and multiple deployments increasingly becoming the norm, more servicemembers and their families are seeking counseling services, the Pentagon's family policy chief said.

DoD started expanding its array of counseling services shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to help counter the stress military service places on servicemembers and their families, particularly during wartime, Barbara Thompson, director of DoD's Office of Family Policy said, told American Forces Press Service.

The result is a vast family-assistance counseling network that emphasizes problem solving and communications skills that help individuals and families get through difficult times. "This is a particularly challenging time for families and servicemembers," Thompson said, noting the frequency of deployments that often separate families for 13 to 14 months at a time.

But deployments aren't the only stressful times, she said. The busy period leading up to a deployment can be almost as difficult, and the adjustment time immediately after a deployment can be the toughest of all.

The National Mental Health Association identified symptoms affected people may experience:

- Difficulty completing tasks,
- Trouble concentrating,
- Fear and anxiety about the future,
- Apathy and emotional numbing,
- Irritability and anger,
- Sadness and depression,
- Feeling powerless,
- Extreme hunger or lack of appetite,
- Difficulty making decisions,
- Crying for no apparent reason,
- Headaches or stomach problems,
- Difficulty sleeping,
- Excessive drinking or drug use, and
- Feeling withdrawn.

Everyone experiences stress differently, and these and other symptoms aren't unusual for people who have undergone deployments or had a loved one deploy, Thompson said. "These are normal reactions to difficult circumstances," she said.

The goal, she said, is to address these issues before they escalate.

The National Mental Health Association recommends tips for coping during difficult times. They range from avoiding excessive exposure to news and talking with others to exercising, eating right and taking part in relaxing, soothing activities.

The group urges for people who can't seem to shake these feelings to seek treatment.

Nearly every military post has a family service or support center, chaplain, child-development center or other service where families can get help, from crisis intervention to counseling, depending on their need. In many cases, non-medical counseling -- educational and outreach sessions as well as individual, group and marriage counseling - is the best medicine, Thompson said.

Services extend beyond active-duty troops and their families to include two groups not always included in military programs: National Guard and reserve members not on active duty, and DoD civilian employees who have deployed overseas.

"This is a system of support as a servicemember and a family traverses the military lifestyle," Thompson said. "It's life coaching, problem solving, providing that extra level of support when a crisis occurs."

Educational sessions, the broadest form of counseling provided, focus on basic life skills, such as stress and anger management, communications, decision making and financial stability.

Outreach sessions are a bit more targeted, with counselors or social workers attending town hall meetings and greeting troops arriving from deployments to ensure they know counseling services are available if they need them. Counselors also present briefings before, during or after deployments and offer group coaching.

In addition, trained social workers and counselors offer private counseling to help people who request it work through troubling issues. These issues can run the gamut, from deployment-related anxiety and family conflicts to emotional or financial difficulties.

"We realize that for many people, these issues are not in isolation," Thompson said. "They're often layered challenges that overlap. The trick is to address them as early as possible before they become bigger challenges."

Thompson emphasized that such programs augment rather than replace the military's network of unit leaders, chaplains, child-development center staffs, and family support centers that have traditionally offered the first step in crisis intervention.

Troops or family members interested in these programs can get a referral from these base service providers. They can also request help directly by calling Military OneSource, toll-free from the states at (800) 342-9647 or overseas at 800-3429-6477.

Thompson calls it a positive sign that several thousand servicemembers have taken advantage of the non-medical counseling services offered and expressed hope others will follow their lead. "We want to make sure everybody has access to this expertise," she said. "It's a way of helping families cope with the day-to-day issues that affect their lives."