Presidential initiative: Psychology's contribution to the health care of military service members and their families

Ensuring that psychologists are in the forefront in providing services to military personnel, veterans and their families

By Donald N. Bersoff, PhD, JD

It is my pleasure to introduce this special issue of the CYF News devoted to articles addressing the impact of deployment and trauma on military children and their families. You may know that one of my presidential initiatives for 2013 is to insure that psychologists are in the forefront in providing services to military personnel, veterans and their families. Thus, this special issue is of particular relevance to me.

I selected this initiative for several reasons. But two reasons are personal. First, I served as an Air Force clinical psychologist from 1965 to 1968, two years of which were in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, as a result, I saw firsthand the effect war can take on both the body and the mind, not only on those who serve but on their partners and their children. Second, and perhaps even more directly apt given the nature of this special issue, is that I saw the toll World War II took on my father who served in North Africa and Europe from 1942 to 1946. He was a combat engineer and earned two bronze stars and at least one Purple Heart. But, when he returned home in 1946 he was essentially silent. He rarely spoke, never watched a war movie, and refused to talk about his combat experience, including his participation in the Battle of the Bulge. If there were such a diagnosis in WWII, he certainly would have been seen as suffering from PTSD. As a result of his almost lifelong silence and my separation from him from the time I was 2 to 7 years old, I have always regretted that he and I never had a close relationship.

The impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on military personnel and veterans is horrendous. But beyond the impact of those wars on the military, there is the impact on families. Four million parents have had a child deployed, 2 million children have had a parent deployed, and 1 million spouses are coping with deployment (see David Riggs’ quote in the December 2010 Monitor by Rebecca Clay). And, as Nansook Park notes in her January 2011 AP article, during the height of those wars, “the number of military children receiving outpatient mental health care doubled, and during that period inpatient visits by military children increased by 50 percent.” Long parental deployments affect academic performance and cause depression and anxiety as well as physical health problems. Obviously, the war not only affects veterans but can burden children and their families.

As Dr. Park points out, although programs and interventions exist, definitive conclusions about what really works are by and large lacking. “There is a significant shortage of evidence-based programs,” she writes. Thus, I agree with her that “Military children and families deserve sustained attention from psychology.” In that light, I applaud the Committee on Children, Youth and Families, and those at APA who staff the Committee for devoting this special issue of the CYF News to Military Children and their Families.

Author Bio 

 Donald N. Bersoff, PhD, JDFor 50 years, Dr. Bersoff has had a gratifying career as a practitioner, academic and educator. He recently retired as director of the JD/PhD Program in Law & Psychology at Drexel University and now serves on the faculties of the Earle Mack School of Law as professor emeritus and as an adjunct member of the psychology department. He also consults with attorneys and psychologists on ethico-legal issues and has served as an expert witness in such cases. He was born and bred in New York and attended New York University where he was awarded a BS, MA and PhD (in 1965), mentored by Bernie Kalinkowitz, Gil Trachtman and Florence Halpern. After receiving his PhD, he served as an Air Force clinical psychologist (1965-1968), including two years in Southeast Asia; taught psychology at Ohio State and the University of Georgia; maintained a private practice in Pennsylvania and Ohio; and directed a college counseling center. In 1976, he received his JD from Yale Law School and joined the faculties of the University of Maryland Law School and the Johns Hopkins psychology department, where he developed the nation’s second law & psychology program.