Program hopes to reduce PTSD – Army to train its own in positive psychology

By Richard E. Gill, Assistant Editor
July 1, 2010 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The Army trains soldiers for physical readiness. Can it train soldiers to be psychologically stronger, also? That’s a question that will be answered with the start of a historic program that will provide education and psychological training to military personnel before they’re exposed to traumatic events on the battlefield.

With the overwhelming number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields with post-traumatic stress disorder something had to be done to alleviate the problem.

That’s why the Army turned to a proven program at the University of Pennsylvania called “emotional resilience.” It was based on research by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., director of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, and other researchers, said Army Research Psychologist Capt. Paul B. Lester, Ph.D.

The Penn program teaches concepts such as focusing on what is right, expressing appreciation and correcting negative views of ambiguous events. Researchers at Penn found that when you teach the teachers different skills they will successfully pass along what they’ve learned. The Army took Penn’s resilience program and adopted it to the needs of the Army.

“Essentially what the Army did was to develop an integrated approach to developing psychological resilience,” said Lester who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army trusts that this program will help people face some of the stressors they are going to face on the battlefield, as well as at home. Another positive factor to emotional resilience training is that family members will also be able to join in the program.

So, stressed Lester, the Army will provide soldiers and family members the tools to deal with some of the things they are going to face during deployment.

Lester explained that the basics of the program are “teachers teaching teachers.” About 150 non-commissioned officers report to the university every month for a 10-day intensive course in emotional resilience. Then they return to their individual units and share the information they’ve learned.

Lester denied accusations that these non-commissioned officers might be described as pseudo psychologists – providing professional guidance without training or that emotional resilience is a ploy to put soldiers back into battle more quickly.

“They are all leaders in the Army. So in many ways they are in the psychology business to begin with, whether or not they have been formally trained. It’s part of their job to work with people on a day-to-day basis to help them perform better and to help them develop as long as they continue in the Army.”

And he added, “It’s not so much of putting soldiers back onto the battlefield, but to make them more resilient to what happens while they’re in the field.”

Eventually the Army’s 1.2 million soldiers will be trained in the philosophy of emotional resiliency. “We don’t know when the global war on terrorism is going to end so we’re preparing to have to be engaged for a long period of time,” he said.

Lester, who leads the assessment of the program, said the program would develop a soldier’s “communication skills, cognitive reforming skills and help soldiers not to catastrophize – don’t think the worse case scenario about every potential problem.”

The ultimate desire is that emotional resilience will reduce PTSD. “That’s our hope,” Lester said. Determining if it reduces PTSD is several years away.

“As far as I can tell this is the largest, deliberate psychological intervention in human history. It will potentially impact millions of people over time. We’re trying to do something good here, and I think it’s needed,” Lester said.

Seligman, who has been working with the Pentagon, described emotional resilience as “the most tremendous program I’ve ever been involved in.”

Seligman said he and Gen. George Casey, the Army’s chief of staff, first discussed the program September 2008. Then in December he met with Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum to discuss in depth using the program to decrease the unprecedented number of soldiers returning with PTSD.

Seligman’s idea was to train the entire Army in the way of growth. “What you basically want to do is increase the health of the whole distribution,” he stressed.

“We don’t send soldiers into a malaria-infested area unprepared. We don’t just wait until they get malaria and then give them quinine. We give them mosquito netting and malaria prevention training. In the same way you don’t wait until your people are falling apart and then devote all your resources into treating them,” Seligman reasoned.

The point is to train an Army that is both physically and mentally fit. So the better idea was to bolster the psychological fitness and if not prevent PTSD at least reduce it. A reduction of PTSD is “a prediction” of emotional resilience, Seligman said.

“But even more important in my point of view it will create human beings who are more resilient and a larger percentage will grow from the experience.”

To accomplish this three different programs were created that give soldiers better ways to cope. The first was to create a 105-question Global Assessment Tool that would measure psychological risk factors and psychological health assets. None of this information is available to commanders. It’s strictly personal and not available to anyone but the soldier taking the test, he said.

Scores on the questionnaire are used to introduce the second part, five online courses that are supposed to introduce a soldier to factors that might reinforce their training in social fitness, spiritual fitness, emotional fitness and family fitness.

A third criterion, which Seligman thinks is the most important, is the explicit training of the entire Army in positive resilience. “I told Gen. Casey that this would be nearly an impossible chore because of the enormous number of teachers required.”

Casey replied that the Army had 40,000 teachers. “You do?” Seligman said. “Yes, they’re called drill sergeants,” Casey retorted.

Now 150 sergeants come to Penn each month to take an intensive course in positive resilience. “Hopefully, some day the Army will have their own teachers to teach resilience and positive psychology.”

“I believe the Army is moving in the right direction. I’d call it foresighted, training never given before in history. They can come out of the Army both physically and psychological fit,” Seligman said.

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