by Patty Steward Griffith, PsyD, MA, LP
Sometimes I feel that as mental health providers we are often out of breath, running to catch up with the ever changing and dynamic needs of service members and their families. And, although each military family is different and special, broader themes emerge in our work with the military culture that could best be explored through the research of social scientists in order to better serve our military families.
The August 18, 2015 MFLN Family Transitions webinar “Communicating Effectively During Transitions – Managing Turbulence and Dilemmas” with Steven Wilson and Leanne Knobloch is a prime example of the investigative work being conducted that offers a contextual understanding for common challenges faced by service members and their families. Especially relevant for mental health providers was the methodology of the research. This webinar was beneficial in that participants were able to walk away with concrete data and tools for their toolbox to support better communication during transitions. The strategies shared for achieving meaningful and productive communication are helpful to both families and practitioners..
One resource that was shared, VA Coaching into Care, seems to be an excellent resource, because bringing in a third party to navigate the VA health care system can help families avoid the potentially painful conflict of trying to coax a resistant service member into unwanted treatment. The social stigma that surrounds asking for mental health support still exists within the military culture. This a complicated dilemma and understandable to individuals serving in the military. Many military men and women would rather confide in their unit buddies about mental health issues, than speak to a stranger who may or may not “get it.”
In my experience when working with military families as a mental health provider, through the Yellow Ribbon Program and then with rotational work with the military, I have found that chaplains are incredibly helpful and important in easing the transition for our military men and women to find their way to civilian or military behavioral health help. The chaplains are trusted and quite often the first responder for an individual’s mental health issues.
Outside of the somewhat protective bubble of the Yellow Ribbon events, providers working with trusted military individuals are essential for creating strong and helpful relationships with families. I have worked with some remarkable women and men of military families within communities who have quietly been providing excellent support and services to military families for decades. They have been extraordinary role models and teachers. The military community in outstate rural areas often depend upon the expertise and wisdom of these individuals.
I have worked on the clinical side of the psychological service spectrum for more than 20 years. Since 2009 I have worked with other mental health providers at innovative Yellow Ribbon programs events nearly every weekend in a 5 state area. We provided confidential support and also trained service members and families about post deployment issues, children and deployment, effective communication, the new normal, predeployment preparation, strong bonds couples’ work and more. These workshops served as conversation starters and provided useful shared information as well. This has been a casual and effective way to provide services to interested families and individuals. Having the communication data from this webinar would have been ideal then, and will now be a good addition to workshops, and for therapeutic work with military families.
Something that Steven Wilson spoke about in regard to clear and thoughtful communication with a family member or provider talking to a post deployment service member was the statement, “I can’t ever know what you have gone through.” . This really resonated with me. This statement is both honest and somewhat open ended. Sometimes this kind of comment will pave the way for more conversation in a relationship or therapy session. It is, without being prying or judgmental, a neutral statement that can promote better communication and potentially develop trust with the family member or provider.
At the end of the day, having excellent care for military families with sound, research-based strategies is what I believe mental health providers strive to offer. The research presented in this communication webinar supports this vision.
Dr. Patty Stewart Griffith is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked for more than 26 years in Los Angeles and Minneapolis providing mental health services and also direct psychological services to hospitals, human service organizations, and the military. She has provided mental health services for the past 23 years to PICA Head Start, which serves 2500 children and families a year. She also has provided direct ongoing mental health services for U.S Military service members for the past 7 years.