Counseling Military, Vets and Families: Get the Skills You Need

Being a military family life counselor is one of the most sought-after jobs in counseling.

Being a military family life counselor is one of the most sought-after jobs in counseling.

When he was 19 years old, Dr. Tregon Fitch discovered that a minor hearing disability would prevent him from following in his father’s footsteps and joining the army.

Despite this unexpected change to an anticipated career path, Dr. Fitch, now a Professor of Counseling in Troy University’s Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation and Interpreter Training, knew he could use his dad’s stories of military family life to help service personnel, veterans and their families with their mental health and well-being.

“I’m very lucky,” says Dr. Fitch. “I knew really early in life that if I couldn’t get into the military, this was going to be the career path I would follow.”

Interestingly, it was his father’s experience outside the military that significantly influenced Dr. Fitch’s career choice.

“My father worked for a crisis hotline in Alabama,” says Dr. Fitch. “He knew I enjoyed psychology, and he encouraged me to go through the training and join the hotline as a volunteer. I was the youngest guy there by many years — I was fielding overdose and suicide calls while still a teenager. But I felt like I was helping people. I just stuck with it, and I’ve been doing something with it as a psych student, professor or clinician ever since.”

During his time at the hotline, Dr. Fitch learned the importance of having the right support network and training as a counselor.

“I worked the late night shift,” recalls Dr. Fitch. “Most of the calls were low-key things. A lot of people were home alone. There was a lot of depression and loneliness and people just needed to talk through it. But about once a month, I got hit with something much more urgent. Luckily the training was excellent, and we had the resources to call on. We had a safety list to manage calls relating to suicide or substance abuse, so you never felt like you were left out in the open.”

Today, as a licensed mental health counselor with more than 25 years of teaching experience, Dr. Fitch provides his students with the tools and techniques they need to support active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families during times of mental health crisis.

Mental Health and Veterans

TROY’s post master’s certificate in counseling military populations prepares students for the unique mental health issues faced by military members, their families and, often, their communities.

According to Dr. Fitch, mental health issues in the military often run deeper than many of the more commonly associated challenges of military life.

“When you think of mental health issues in the military, everyone thinks of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” says Dr. Fitch. “PTSD in veterans is usually related to combat, but other traumas from car accidents and sexual assault are also big drivers of the need for treatment for PTSD veterans.”

Dr. Fitch explains that some challenges in military life can parallel societal problems in civilian life.

“When you take a bunch of people in their late teens and early twenties, whatever they normally deal with in civilian life, they’re also dealing with in the military,” says Dr. Fitch. “We find depression, substance abuse disorders, deployment issues and challenges relating to families breaking up. We also see a lot of traumatic brain injuries resulting from concussions.”

Reintegration Issues

Dr. Fitch explains that many mental health issues in military communities only surface when veterans attempt to reintegrate into civilian life after years of service.

“Veterans are trying to meld into society and turn off that ‘military’ switch,” says Dr. Fitch. “They are trying to be parents or teachers or build a new career, but it’s still crazy difficult for people to turn that switch off.”

Although the military is getting better at supporting personnel with mental health problems, many of these reintegration issues relate to challenges that were unresolved during military service.

“A lot of times, things happen too late in the process,” says Dr. Fitch. “So, you’re dealing with a situation when it’s in crisis mode, but that earlier intervention could have helped.”

According to Dr. Fitch, certain mental health diagnoses can be perceived as “career killers” in the military.

“Due to a lack of privacy on military bases, many service personnel are afraid of how seeking out counseling might affect their careers,” says Dr. Fitch. “One thing they can do is ‘cash-only’ counseling,” says Dr. Fitch. “That means their medical records are more protected from what’s happening at the base. But it can get messy.”

Counseling Veterans

As a U.S. Army veteran and a graduate of TROY’s counseling master’s program and post-master’s certificate in counseling military populations, Nicole Q. Pullum concurs that life after military service can be difficult.

“Adjusting to new surroundings is a common challenge I hear about,” says Pullum, who now works as a vocational rehabilitation specialist. “Because of my experience, I felt the need to give back and continue service by helping soldiers, veterans and their families who fight daily to be whole and exist in a place that, oftentimes, forgets about the sacrifices made.”

Pullum explains that many people in the military community are reluctant to seek counseling help because they believe that nobody really cares.

“Having to tell your story repeatedly is sometimes not beneficial,” says Pullum. “Depending on the experience of the individual who is seeking help, some feel as if people generally do not care about what they are facing.”

Pullum explains that she hopes to change this perception by being an empathetic listener and, when appropriate, sharing her personal experiences.

“Sharing my story has been beneficial to help others,” says Pullum. “I have walked the path and openly disclose that when it is helpful for the individual I am providing service to.”

Mental Health Therapy

According to Dr. Fitch, military counselors employ several strategies to help individuals better manage mental health issues that often go hand-in-hand with military service.

“As a counselor, our strategies are very problem-specific,” says Dr. Fitch. “If someone comes in with a substance abuse issue, we’ll employ motivational interviewing and solution-focused counseling. These are specific techniques that are geared toward working with substance abuse. If somebody comes in with a trauma counseling issue, we will use things like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, cognitive processing therapy and exposure therapy.”

Dr. Fitch offers an example of how these therapies work.

“A lot of times, military personnel come back from combat and they just don’t feel safe anymore in crowds of people,” explains Dr. Fitch. “With the exposure therapy, they do visualization exercises, getting comfortable and relaxed thinking about being in crowds. Then, the counselor literally takes them from the hospital to a place like Walmart and lets them experience being in a crowd — with support.”

Dr. Fitch explains how cognitive processing therapy offers a similar approach by encouraging individuals to face their trauma.

“We have clients relive the trauma through writing or through doing recordings,” says Dr. Fitch.

This repetition in a safe environment helps the brain map and better manage the trauma. “The basic counseling principle is the more you avoid something — whether it’s traumatic or a small thing — the bigger it can become in your brain,” says Dr. Fitch. “So anything you do that helps someone express themselves tends to be therapeutic.”

Military Family Life Counseling

When mental health issues go untreated, the results can be catastrophic.

“Someone might suffer from hallucinations or start self-medicating with alcohol,” says Dr. Fitch. “Or they might experience severe depression, and not even get out of bed anymore. When things really go over the edge, you’re looking at hospitalization.”

While suicide is sadly an all-too-common, worst-case scenario, social isolation, family break-ups and divorce are much more common eventualities.

“We definitely know that leaving these challenges alone is probably the worst thing we can do,” says Dr. Fitch. “So we have to help them reintegrate and deal with their issues.”

But it’s not just service personnel who might experience mental health issues relating to military service. Military families are also at risk.

When troops are deployed, their families have to get on with life without them, and that can be difficult enough. However, a return from deployment, while a happy occasion, can also pose serious challenges.

“Suddenly, you’re a single parent,” says Dr. Fitch. “Then, when the spouse comes home, all the roles and dynamics have changed. So, families have to go through an adjustment every time they leave and every time they come back.”

The nature of life in the military, when frequent relocation is not uncommon, can also add to the challenges.

“A military spouse’s career is often disjointed because they’re not in the same place for many years,” explains Dr. Fitch. “In various ways, a spouse or family’s sacrifices are just as great as the sacrifices made by those in active service. As such, military marriage counseling services are vital.”

It’s not surprising that, after living through and understanding the impact of mental health on military communities, many military spouses are drawn to counseling careers themselves.

Online Learning With Real-World Experience

The online certificate programs at TROY are ideally designed for military service personnel and their families as well as veterans who are working while studying for a career in clinical counseling.

Students can work toward their counseling military populations certificate while studying for their master’s degree or return after graduation to complete the certificate. The flexibility of the program is especially helpful for active-duty service members, in particular.

“It’s 100% online,” says Dr. Fitch. “The five classes are asynchronous. So, if you are stationed in the Middle East or Germany or working full time, you can set your own schedule and do it.”

According to Dr. Fitch, the certificate program opens many doors for licensed counselors to build a career in military counseling.

“There is no specialized training in military counseling in your normal counseling program,” says Dr. Fitch. “So this is going to be your only training opportunity if you want to work in the Department of Veteran Affairs or as a military family life counselor. It’s a huge benefit for résumé building and for networking.”

Dr. Fitch explains that being a military family life counselor is one of the most sought-after jobs in counseling.

“This opens up incredible opportunities to travel,” says Dr. Fitch. “You get to go to Ireland, England, Germany, the Middle East and all those places where the U.S. military is based and work for six months.”

Despite being offered 100% online, TROY’s certificate program also creates real-world opportunities to work on-site with the military community. Dr. Fitch highlights the option to work as an intern and gain experience in military counseling and military family life counseling as part of the program.

“We can set those internships up for you,” says Dr. Fitch. “If you live near a military base like Panama City, Florida, we can set you up to work at that hospital.”

According to Pullum, this real-world experience is vital preparation for a career in military counseling.

“Students should take any opportunity to shadow others in the profession and talk to veterans and military family members who have used counseling to get an idea of what is expected,” says Pullum.

Keen to develop this real-world experience, Dr. Fitch explains how he supplements his online content with materials sourced from people with military experience.

“Since I’m not a military person, I’m always looking to share content from people with first-hand experiences,” says Dr. Fitch. “So, my students hear from a lot of different people. They will watch more videos featuring service members and VA psychologists than videos that feature me. I like to think that I’m more of a coordinator, connecting students to the right things they need.”

Why TROY?

Pullum is proud of both her service in the military and her educational achievements at TROY. “I enjoy being a positive light for others to find their footing on their journey to being whole,” says Pullum. “The greatest reward is seeing my work from start to finish and knowing I had a part in the success of my battle buddies’ growth. I’m only able to meet their needs through being present in each encounter — something that was instilled in me by my professors at TROY.”

Dr. Fitch concurs that the quality of teaching at TROY is second to none.

“We’re a teaching-focused university,” says Dr. Fitch. “We don’t have graduate assistants teaching our classes. We’ve got decades of experience in the classroom — I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Our faculty is not sitting up all night writing grants or manuscripts. You get a different type of academic experience when you’re at a place like TROY.”

Learn More About Becoming a Counselor

Visit our website to learn more about how a post master’s certificate in counseling military populations can help you serve the mental health needs of those who sacrifice so much to serve and protect.

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