A guide to counselling male military personnel and veterans

By Professor Duncan Shields and Professor Marvin Westwood

[Author’s note: Marv Westwood has gained a huge amount of respect from the MPN following his conference presentations at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL since 2016. Follow this lead, Duncan Shields captivated our attention with his presentation on therapy for veterans in 2018. If we want to consult with experts from overseas on ‘combat stress’, we look immediately to Marv and Duncan. In the brief blog below they outline their chapter in the recently published Palgrave Handbookof Male Psychology and Mental Health].

The nature of military operations requires that men learn to suppress certain emotional responses (fear, disgust, etc.) in order to stay engaged in difficult or dangerous circumstances until the job has been completed. To prepare personnel for such service, values and behaviours associated with a traditional hyper-masculine gender role are reinforced for members in a stoic warrior culture of the military.

This enculturation, although useful under operational conditions, can inadvertently reinforce help seeking avoidance and fear of stigmatization for military personnel coping with operational stress injuries or other mental health challenges.  The need to maintain the appearance of stoic competence may make it more difficult for these clients to enter counselling.

Making counselling culturally safe for military clients calls for clinicians to embrace the strengths inherent in traditional masculine gender roles and military cultural norms, while helping clients break free of the code of silent stoicism that isolates them when they are in pain.  Therapists are in an ideal position to help Veteran clients rewrite the rules of military masculinity, to recognize the “battle for the heart and mind” through therapy is valid, courageous and a sign of strength. 

In order to sensitize professionals for practice with this population, our chapter in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health presents case examples to contrast military masculine gender role norms, with how mental health challenges are framed as disorder.  It further considers how traditional masculine role narratives may influence the experience of mental health challenges, as well as treatment uptake and engagement. Our handbook chapter is intended to expand a practitioner’s cultural competencies by examining the role of gender in informing therapeutic work with military-connected clients.

Of prominence is that hyper-masculine gender norms are typically embedded within military institutions, and while adherence to these norms can contribute to combat and military success, they conversely make clinical work challenging.

Veterans may possess values and beliefs that run contrary to typical therapeutic models that rely on emotional self-disclosure and self-reflection. Thus, even though practitioners may be well-intentioned and seek to address the burdens veterans can assume with respect to their experiences, there may be an immediate realization that traditional therapeutic approaches are not well-suited, and fail to work. Consequently, help-seeking veterans remain more likely to drop-out or to not engage with the usual therapeutic process.

Different approaches and interventions are needed in order to address this issue, and developing an effective model for practitioners to navigate these challenges ensures veterans seeking support receive adequate and appropriate therapeutic help.

By capitalizing on adopted characteristics, such as the courage to engage in therapeutic work and mastery of one’s emotional experiences, practitioners can begin to engage and to promote change for veteran clients.

It is evident that working with military-connected clients requires cultural sensitivities, which can subsequently be applied to individual or group counselling contexts.

 

About the authors

Duncan M. Shields, PhD, RCC. Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia, Faculty of Medicine, The Men’s Initiative: Military and First Responder Resiliency Project. Duncan is a clinician and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia.  His work focuses on culturally relevant initiatives to assist first responder and military personnel maintain or regain well-being while coping with operational stress and trauma. He is co-founder of The Men’s Initiative that mobilizes men in projects that benefit families, communities and the world, and developed a First Responder Resiliency Program that catalyzes a more inclusive and supportive work culture. Dr. Shields previously served as an infantry reservist where he developed a lifelong appreciation for the contribution of those in uniform.

Marvin Westwood, Professor Emeritus, Counselling Psychology Program, University of British Columbia.Professor Westwood’s major areas of teaching and research focus on development, teaching and delivery of group-based approaches for counselling clients, and men’s psychological health. How counselling and psychotherapy approaches can be adapted to be congruent with the “cultures of masculinity” is a core interest area.  He developed the UBC Veterans Transition Program to help promote recovery from war related stress injuries for which he received both the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2005 and 2013. In 2012 he established the Centre for Group Counselling and Trauma, and is currently Senior Advisor to the Centre.

 

The new chapter outlined above is:

Shields, D., and Westwood, M. (2019). Counselling Male Military Personnel and Veterans: Addressing Challenges and Enhancing Engagement, in Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager MJ and Sullivan L (Eds.) (2019). The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1

 

 

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