Military needs civilian psychologists

By Richard E. Gill Assistant Editor
May 1, 2007 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Using civilian psychologists, possibly in combat zones in the Middle East but also to treat emotionally damaged war veterans returning from horrid conditions of a war that has taken its toll on active duty psychologists, is under consideration by the U.S. military.

Retired Col. Will Wilson, Ph.D., said there is a strong initiative by the military to enlist the aid of civilians to help psychologists that are overwhelmed and understaffed from constant rotation in and out of war zones.

“A number of military psychologists on active duty are getting worn out, fatigued. And a number of captain-level and major-level psychologists are being routinely rotated into combat zones and other very difficult situations.” Civilian psychologists are critical to fill slots of active duty personnel to give those returning time to recuperate, Wilson said.

“Whether or not they (civilian psychologists) would be assigned to combat zones is undecided, but that’s the obvious implication … they would be assigned to all military environments, stateside and overseas. As that plays out there are a lot of concerns,” said Wilson, who is chair of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 19 (military psychology) practice committee and runs a discussion group including more than 600 psychologists.

“We’ve got people in Guantanamo, people on aircraft carriers, people all over the world and they’re getting worn out. They’re not getting a chance to stabilize or time to get their lives in order before they go back into situations that are very demanding,” Wilson said. “I think we’re being stretched there.”

Wilson said some psychologists intending to make the military a career are now considering opportunities outside the military. “I think that is a concern that these people … are considering giving up.”

He doesn’t believe the number of military personnel returning from the Middle East with mental illness is any greater than the number of mentally ill that returned from Vietnam, which in both wars was about 15 percent to 18 percent. However, he qualified this by saying that those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might suffer more severe problems.

There are two sides to this argument, Wilson said. “One, we’re better at finding mental health problems, and two, in Iraq almost everybody is in some form of combat (and) research indicates that there are more severe symptoms (in combat veterans) than those who are farther back. Well, there are very few that are farther back. You can make a prediction that the number might be higher in Iraq due to the nature of the environment we are in,” Wilson said.

There is still another problem, Wilson said. Many of those returning from combat want to believe it’s over and done with and that they are mentally healthy. In many cases that is not true.

An APA survey estimated that three out of 10 soldiers returning meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. It also stated that there is no coordinated approach to providing mental health care to service members or their families.

“Some of those returning have difficulty seeking treatment or have difficulty admitting to themselves that they need treatment. After being “the baddest bear in the woods” it’s difficult to present yourself for treatment. The analogy is that you’ve been the lion out there and all you’ve got is a thorn in your paw. You’re really minimizing the problem, trying on your own to make it go away, hoping it will go away,” Wilson explained.

“The reality is that it’s difficult for a person to battle this (PTSD) alone. It’s carried forward so it’s difficult for a person to provide therapy for himself.”

Research shows that PTSD won’t go away by itself and won’t erode. Unless treated, it can cause people to get into trouble with alcohol, substance abuse, abuse of other people, nightmares, anxiety and all sorts of addictive behavior – problems that are pervasive and not likely simply to disappear. What treatment provides, he said, is help to reduce those problems.

Wilson said his father-in-law’s ship was sunk during WWII and he was in the water for 30 hours before a trawler picked him up. Wilson said he is still suffering incidents of PTSD some 60 years later, a living example of the persistence of PTSD.

“There are two things going on regarding returning veterans. One, there are not enough care providers available, and two, there are not enough people focusing on the problem outside the military.”

But PTSD, Wilson said, is not restricted to military personnel. With the media presence not only are soldiers traumatized but so are people that constantly watch news reports from the Middle East. It makes them angry and frustrated.

“Given what we know and the resources we have we’re doing the best job we can. Could we use more resources? Sure. Can we afford them? I’m not sure.” Fortunately, he added, there’s ongoing research, treatment centers being established and groups around the country are coming together to help.

Wilson grew up in a military family. Following high school in Stuttgart, Germany, he attended West Point, graduating in 1963. After serving as a combat Special Forces officer in Vietnam he went on to receive a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was division psychologist with the 25th Infantry Division and headed creating a sequential leader development model at West Point.

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