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Woeful Lack of Military Knowledge Among Mental Health Providers

Pfc. Paige Pendleton/Army
Pfc. Paige Pendleton/Army

Do you really have to put together a PowerPoint presentation if you want your therapist to understand your military life?

It might save time. In November, 2014, the RAND Corporation released a new study that demonstrates the woeful lack of understanding mental health providers have about military members, veterans and families they treat.

This is no surprise to military families. Spending the first couple of visits to a therapist explaining the frequent moves, deployments and reunions that are part of military life is expected.

Explaining that stuff over and over every time you change therapists, because the one you are seeing has disappeared or doesn't have an appointment for six more weeks, is infuriating.

This new study may add some teeth to our complaints. Researchers at RAND surveyed 522 mental health care providers. Respondents were screened to be sure that they were licensed, trained professional psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers or master's level licensed professional counselors or licensed mental health counselors. These providers were experienced. On average, they had completed their training 18 years ago.

In addition to questions about their practice and caseload, providers were asked about their military cultural competency -- their knowledge, awareness and attitudes toward military life.

The questions asked concerned the most basic information about the military. This wasn't the SAT of military life. These questions hit the basics.

The researchers asked if the providers understood military rank structure. They were not required to identify ranks and insignia. They were only asked if they knew about it.

They were asked if they knew the different military branches. The difference between active-duty and reserve branches. Deployment-related slang terms. Deployment-related stressors for service members and families. Programs and services available for military families.

Only 24 percent of providers in the Tricare network achieved this very basic knowledge of military life. Only 8 percent outside the network understood it. That is a fail, if you ask me.

Among providers who worked in a military or Department of Veterans Affairs setting, 70 percent had a high cultural competency. But the majority of military families do not get care in a military setting. They get care from providers in the Tricare network and in the civilian sector.

When you are a military spouse dealing with depression, or coping with a child's mental illness, or struggling to get your service member into care for PTSD, the last thing you expect is that your provider needs a PowerPoint from you about how the military works.

That kind of ignorance -- and it is ignorance -- isn't acceptable. We talk all the time about how important it is that military members, veterans and family members have high-quality mental health care. Expecting mental health care providers to understand the basics of military life is not too much.

I know there is an argument that it is too much, that if we dare to put another requirement on providers that there will be even fewer providers that will accept military clients.

An abundance of poor-quality care is not the answer. This is one situation in which a licensed, trained professional should feel the need to educate herself on what the 1 percent really do. The training at this minimal level is available. We should require service providers who treat military families to demonstrate that they have had some.

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Jacey Eckhart TRICARE

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Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs at and a military sociologist.  Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan??

Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times.  Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.  

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