Training Therapists to Help Military Families: USC Program Focuses on Bridging the Civilian-Military Gap in Mental Health

The mental health of service members continues to make headlines. Speculation abounds as to what pushed an Army sergeant to allegedly kill 16 Afghan civilians.

Suicide rates continue to rise in the ranks.

More than 211,000 service members of the current wars have sought treatment for PTSD through official, military channels. Officials estimate that thousands more are likely seeking help from civilian doctors, according to USA Today.

Now, universities are teaching their students to help those wounded warriors and their families.

At the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, educators realized civilian mental health professionals would benefit from training focused on bridging the military-civilian culture gap. In 2009, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families (CIR), started offering courses specific to dealing with veterans and military family issues.

“There are so many people coming back (from the wars), and they’re not all going to VAs,” said Alice Kim, project manager for CIR. “They’re going to civilian community providers. Most civilians don’t know much about the military culture, and they have a hard time engaging with the client and they lose them.”

Kim said establishing that initial, critical connection with military clients can be difficult for therapists with little or no knowledge of what military life is like. Hesitation and skepticism on the part of the client is also common, including fears that session information will somehow be reported back to the chain of command.

“A lot of (clients) had experienced combat and things civilians really can’t fathom at all,” Kim said. “If you don’t even know things like what a deployment cycle is like and what a family goes through, it’s hard to get to a point where the therapist and client are on the same page. The client doesn’t want to have to educate the therapist.”

CIR focuses on re-integration issues to help those civilian providers better connect with military clients, Kim said. That includes courses with the New York Times Knowledge Network, which feature journalists who’ve been embedded with troops, and other timely resources to educate mental health professionals about military-specific issues.

Thanks to a DoD grant, CIR and USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) are developing a virtual reality patient for therapists to practice and improve their ability to establish rapport with military clients, Kim said. The ICT has worked with the Army to develop virtual reality training programs to prep soldiers for combat. Now, similar technology will be used to give mental health professionals virtual field experience before they engage with military clients.

“Students can really use it to practice interviewing skills, building that initial rapport with this virtual reality person that can kind of hone their practice skills before they go out in the real world,” she said.

The virtual patient will be introduced on a limited basis in classrooms starting fall 2012, Kim said.

The brick-and-mortar center is located in Los Angeles with 200 students enrolled in the military sub-concentration. An additional 100 students are working on their master’s in social work online, Kim said. Many of those students are military spouses, she said.

“We’ve found that military spouses are great because they’re up to speed with the military culture,” Kim said. “If they’re on base or in a remote area, the fact that they can complete the MSW online, they’re very excited about that. They take course work online, then take field placement in their community.”

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