In the summer of 2005, Barbara Romberg, PhD, heard a National Public Radio report that struck her: Most Americans are insulated from and doing nothing to help those fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"It really bothered me, knowing there is a segment of our society that bears the burden of this conflict while the rest of us go merrily on our way," the Washington, D.C.-area child clinical psychologist says. "I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, and I thought, I don't want my daughters growing up knowing we could have done more for these returnees-even though we know so much more about how to help."
Her feelings prompted Romberg to create Give an Hour, a volunteer program that links mental health professionals with military personnel and their families who might need their services. The effort aims to complement the work of psychologists in the military and the Department of Veteran Affairs, who are flooded with calls from people needing assistance, Romberg says.
"The military is doing an excellent job of trying to get in front of these issues, but they don't have enough resources," she says. "I thought if we could make it easy for people to give their time, that people would step up. And they are."
Romberg's is one of several pro bono efforts launched by psychologists to provide mental health and educational assistance to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. Others counsel family members of those in the Reserves and the National Guard. Another group of psychologists focuses its efforts on military children and teens. Others still disseminate state-of-the-art information about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resilience and other relevant psychological issues to professionals who work with children and to communities at large.
And more are needed to help. "It feels so much better to do something than to just feel frustrated or sad about the news," Romberg says.
Sharing their expertise
In June, Give an Hour launched its Web site, www.giveanhour.org, which enables military personnel and their families to access local providers. As of July, about 435 mental health providers in 40 states had signed up to give at least one free hour a week of service for at least a year. The organization is now getting referrals from veterans' organizations, Romberg says.
Any mental health professional with a license who practices in their particular area of expertise-whether counseling, family, depression or other-is welcome to join; they don't necessarily need expertise in PTSD because many families need other types of counseling as well, she adds.
That said, Romberg is launching a forum on the Web site where volunteers can air clinical concerns with senior practitioners experiencedin PTSD and share experiences with colleagues. Eventually, the site also will include a large online resources library, which Romberg plans to staff with volunteers who can help families search for information.
Recently, Give an Hour received a boost via a $330,000 grant from the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a nonprofit organization that helps severely wounded and disabled Iraq war veterans resume fulfilling lives. The money is allowing Romberg to hire support staff and obtain office space.
Meanwhile, The Case Foundation is providing ideas and technological support so Romberg can spread the word via a sophisticated "virtual tour" of each state that taps state mental health associations and the current network of providers to recruit other providers, and to keep local media informed on the effort's progress.
Serving the least served
In a similar effort called Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists, or SOFAR (www.sofarusa.org), volunteer mental health professionals in New England provide counseling and other services to families of those in the Reserves and National Guard. (See www.apa.org/monitor/jan06/wounds.html for more information.)
SOFAR is targeting reservists and their families, says Ken Reich, EdD, president of the Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England and the group's founder, because they lack the support structures of the traditional military.
To help fill these gaps, "our mission is to address the vicarious trauma that family members may experience, to build resilience in these families and to work preventively with children," says Reich, who co-directs SOFAR with former APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis) President Jaine Darwin, PhD. The group is especially concerned about traumatized children, he adds, because research shows that about a third of children who have been abused or neglected, for instance, will revisit that trauma on their own children if they don't get help.
The group met with the military for two and a half years to build a common language and agenda, Reich says. One of its primary goals is providing free counseling, delivered by 70 New England mental health professionals trained by experts to deal with this population. It is now expanding to include trained professionals nationwide. Counselors see families both in private practice, and in much greater numbers, in the context of the military's Family Readiness Groups, or FRGs, organizations that help families cope with the stresses of deployment. In these groups, volunteers first talk briefly about common emotional stresses families may face, and then hold breakout sessions with specific subgroups such as parents, spouses and siblings to help them air their concerns. SOFAR also educates teachers, pediatricians and parents about common problems and offers them resources that can help, including "The SOFAR Guide for Helping Children and Youth Cope with Deployment of a Parent in the Military Services," a 25-page pamphlet available at www.sofarusa.org/downloads/sofar_children_pamphlet.pdf.
The group, reachable at (617) 266-2611 in Boston, will soon have an 800 number, says Reich. SOFAR needs workers in development, administration, fundraising, grant writing and other areas: "We welcome participation at any level," he emphasizes.
A positive note
A group of leaders in positive psychology leaders, including Past APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, are also helping children affected by the war by lending their free expertise to the Military Child Education Coalition, or MCEC, a nonprofit organization that aims to ensure that military children receive any educational or therapeutic help they may need.
Mike Matthews, PhD, a military and experimental psychologist at the United States Military Academy and incoming president of APA Div. 19 (Military), brought the psychologists to MCEC recognizing that military personnel and their children would be natural recipients of positive psychology's ideas.
So far, the psychologists have helped MCEC leaders inform an MCEC program for children and teens whose parents have died or been seriously injured in the war. Their efforts zero in on four character strengths found to be particularly important in young people's life satisfaction: zest, hope, gratitude and the capacity to love, Matthews says.
Through MCEC, the positive psychologists have also trained 300 child educators, counselors and FRG coordinators on ways they can incorporate positive-psychology ideas into their work with children.
Other psychologists are also donating their time to aid communities' understanding of the psychological issues service members and their families face. Michelle Sherman, PhD, director of the family mental health program at the Oklahoma City VA and clinical associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and her mother, DeAnne M. Sherman, a retired educator in St. Paul, Minn., for example, are giving community-based talks in several states to mental health professionals, clergy members, employers, teachers, school counselors and others to aid their understanding of those directly affected by the war. These include books the two have co-written on children and trauma (see www.seedsof hopebooks.com) that they are in some cases distributing for free; MCEC purchased a number that it will be donating to schools as well.
"A lot of people want to be supportive and helpful, but they don't know how," Sherman says."Our mission is to provide them with basic information and tools so they can be sensitive to, and appreciative of, military men, women and their families and what they're going through."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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