Access to Behavioral Health Care Promotes Post-Traumatic Growth
Achieving positive psychological growth from adversity
Behavioral health was an issue we avoided during my 20 years as an Army Infantry officer. It wasn’t until I began working for a national behavioral health company nine years ago that I understood the value of timely behavioral health care for our military.
Through Chris Kyle’s story, America saw three key elements of behavioral health support that can lead not only to recovery but also to growth for an individual exposed to extreme physical and mental trauma, often referred to as post-traumatic growth.
For many, that education came overnight. One recent box office hit gave more than 25 million Americans a realistic view of the importance of behavioral health support for the recovery and growth of service members.
American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, tells the life story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history with 160 confirmed kills during four combat tours in Iraq.
The movie highlights the difficulty of war on our service men and women, in general, and the individual stressors built up over time with being the nation’s deadliest marksman, in particular. As strong as Chris was, his mental health could not withstand the crushing pressure of his wartime experiences. Through Chris Kyle’s story, America saw three key elements of behavioral health support that can lead not only to recovery but also to growth for an individual exposed to extreme physical and mental trauma, often referred to as post-traumatic growth.
- Family support
Family members are combat readiness multipliers, who seldom receive notice or thanks for the load they bear. In American Sniper, Chris’ wife, Taya, tries to convince him each time he returns from a deployment to seek help as he grows more isolated from the family. It isn’t until he nearly kills the family dog during a backyard barbecue that his family is finally successful in getting him to seek help through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That visit turns out to be life-changing.
Just as Taya was to Chris, family members are invaluable support structures to the service member living with significant daily stressors before, during, and after deployments. However, military families need support as well, or their reserve tanks will run dry. Fortunately, many resources are available that specifically target and support military families during all stages of their military and post-military journey, such as Military OneSource, a 24/7 resource for assisting military families and TRICARE, the military’s health care program. Also noteworthy, the National Military Family Association offers scholarships to military spouses, summer camps for military kids, family retreats, and advocacy efforts to protect military family benefits.
Where behavioral health counselors may have to work through the rapport-building process to gain credibility, the peer can be an instant and significant supplement in support of ongoing behavioral health counseling.
- Understanding military culture
During Chris’ VA counseling encounter, the therapist applied his awareness of military cultural nuance to guide his reluctant client onto a path of recovery. Using Chris’ innate need to protect and assist his fellow warriors, the therapist was able to redirect Chris’ focus to talking with (and trying to “save”) other veterans at the VA hospital with both visible and invisible wounds. This later motivated him to provide group and one-on-one peer support for other veterans in the community.
Having counselors with an understanding of military culture is key, especially in those initial sessions. Military community and family support programs such as Military OneSource provide ready access to short-term counseling, warm transfers to mental health counseling, and an extraordinary array of support services, including military peer support.
- Peer support
There are times when family support has its limits. Combat veterans, like Chris, become increasingly distant, keeping war accounts and stories to themselves as a way to protect their loved ones. Chris tells Taya, “I don’t want [the war] in your head.”
This is where peers (generally veterans who have successfully dealt with their own mental health recovery) are of great therapeutic value. Where behavioral health counselors may have to work through the rapport-building process to gain credibility, the peer can be an instant and significant supplement in support of ongoing behavioral health counseling. Peer consultants come to the table with ready-made credentials (“been there, done that”), making rapport-building, and ultimately recovery and growth, a much faster process.
American Sniper is a significant movie in that it highlights the post-traumatic growth we see in the typical veteran integrating back into our communities, reinforcing the importance of mitigating the stigma associated with military personnel seeking behavioral health services. Doing so is critical to combat readiness and to supporting service members, veterans and their families in remaining on a positive personal and professional trajectory.
More resources for our military, veterans and their families:
- Make the Connection: VA online resource that connects veterans and their friends and family members with information, resources, and solutions to issues affecting their lives.
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1.800.273.8255
- Coast Guard Support Program: A 24/7 resource for assisting Coast Guard active duty, reserve and civilian employees and their families.
- Military Culture: Core Competencies for Healthcare Professionals: A DoD/VA resource for educating clinical civilian providers in military culture: Four, two-hour modules with two free CEUs earned for each module completed.