December 19, 2016
Veterans Day is over.
Military Family Appreciation Month has passed.
How do we keep showing support for veterans and military families into the holiday season and beyond?
Military families have tremendous strength, but they can also face unique stressors during the holiday season. While for many people, this time of year means joy, celebration, and togetherness, service members and their families may be apart because of deployments. Many veterans and their families may be trying to transition back to civilian life.
Since 2002, more than 2.6 million U.S. military personnel have become veterans with nearly half experiencing mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, struggles with substance use, depression and grief. As a psychologist and the director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, I am honored to work every day to support veterans and their families with the mental health care and support they deserve.
Unfortunately, a common theme that my fellow clinicians and I hear from veterans is that they don’t always feel that same support from their surrounding community. Although more than 2.6 million new veterans since 2002, might seem like a large number, it is actually less than 1 percent of the U.S. population—creating a potential gap between veterans and the civilian population that can lead to unfamiliarity with the military family experience. In fact, 55 percent of veterans report feeling disconnected from civilian life. So what can we do?
During the holidays, and every day, even small gestures can go a long way to bridge that divide and show our military personnel, veterans and their families that their service and sacrifices are valued:
• Keep up with news about ongoing conflicts. The military is a brother- and sister-hood. It is an amazing connection that transcends time. Knowing where troops are deployed and knowing when armed service members lose their lives shows that we care about all those who serve.
• Understand that each military branch has its own unique culture. You don’t need to be an expert. Just asking, “What branch did you serve in?” and knowing that service members and veterans have pride in their branch can mean a lot. (For reference, soldiers serve in the Army, Marines in the Marine Corps, airmen in the Air Force, and sailors in the Navy. The Coast Guard is a little trickier, while “Coasties” is the most common, it can have a demeaning connotation, so Coast Guardsman is probably safest.)
• Realize that service members have lots of different jobs in the military. Veterans often reflect that everyone thinks they were on the front lines. While many were, most were not. Think about any organization in which you have worked. The military needs all those pieces, too. The mail still needs to get delivered, networks and communications established and maintained, equipment ordered, fixed and inventoried, etc., for the system to work. Not every service member or veteran has been in combat – and every role in the military can be challenging and rewarding. Consider asking, “What was your job in the military?”
• At this time of year, it may be especially important to remember that deployment is for the duration. We may hear “home for the holidays” stories, but the vast majority of those who are deployed miss major holidays and life events (births, weddings and funerals). And even though family members are “prepared,” it’s still hard.
• Look for what you have in common. People often say, “I can’t imagine…enlisting, serving, deploying, seeing combat.” And while it’s true that most Americans will never have these experiences firsthand, we can all relate to making sacrifices and working hard for the things and people we love. We can respect military service without creating distance.
But most importantly, for anyone facing a tough time or experiencing a mental health concern, remember that you are not alone. Get the support you deserve to feel well and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
The Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn provides free behavioral health services for veterans and their families, and we also have resources available on our website and through our partners at Penn Medicine for all community members in need of extra support or mental health services, any time of the year.
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Leah Blain, Ph.D., is the clinic director for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in the field of trauma recovery, focusing on clinical research, practice, and dissemination of evidence-based psychotherapies for PTSD, depression, anxiety and chronic pain for the past 10 years.