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The Importance of Family-Focused Care in Military Social Work

  • Practice

Clinical Associate Professor David Bringhurst believes that, through evidence-based therapeutic models, military social workers would be equipped to serve not just military-affiliated individuals but their families, too.

Military service members and veterans face a number of intense physical and psychological challenges—from complying with rigorous fitness standards to the mental health issues they may face in the aftermath of combat. Yet most service members do benefit from a strong support network — the partners, spouses and family members who shoulder the burden of deployment and military service in their own way.

While a number of mental health care resources are readily available to both active duty service members and veterans, the same can not always be said for their friends and family. In honor of Military Family Month, we spoke with the Military and Veterans ProgramsDavid Bringhurst, veteran and clinical associate professor in the Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, about the ways in which social workers can provide more comprehensive, family-based care to service members and veterans.

The unique challenges facing military spouses and families

Bringhurst, who served 21 years of active duty in the Air Force as a military social worker—during which time he pursued a PhD in social work—believes that the partners and families of service members often grapple with unique stressors.

“People tend to assume that enduring separation during deployment is the most challenging part of being a family member to a service member,” he said. While this may be true in some cases, Bringhurst claims that a number of other issues associated with the culture and lifestyle of the military can be sources of significant stress for a family.

He points to frequent traveling and re-stationing as an example. “When a family moves, military spouses may face employment instability, parents must find new schools for their children and the whole family must work to build new friendships in their community,” Bringhurst said.

Beyond the challenges of moving, military families are often tasked with providing financial and emotional support to the service member. Bringhurst, who was chief of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, which not only provided non-medical care to wounded warriors but also provided services to the families and caregivers of disabled veterans, puts it this way: “Being part of a military family, in itself, requires a kind of sacrifice.”

Addressing disparities in access to mental health resources

Upon separation from the military, service members are connected with a variety of resources to aid them in everything from financial planning and civilian career preparation to mental health care. Military spouses and families, on the other hand, have historically had minimal access to or been entirely excluded from such programs. Due to this disparity, military families often do not have adequate access to family counseling or marriage therapy, which can exacerbate existing issues within the family.

Bringhurst acknowledges that in recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of nonprofits that focus on meeting the needs of military families, as well the number of trained military family life counselors. These counselors differ from traditional military counselors in that they are available to treat family members even when service members are stationed at home.

One of the most profound gaps in care that remains is a shortage of marriage and family therapy services. “Even with the influx of practitioners, the structural approach to marriage therapy in the military remains insufficient,” Bringhurst said. “Therapists often meet with the service member and the spouse individually instead of practicing a collaborative approach to treating relational stress and marital issues.”

As such, Bringhurst believes that an integrated approach to family and marriage therapy will be critical to increasing access to mental health care for the families of military service members.

Laying the groundwork for the future of military social work

Bringhurst teaches a number of military-focused courses to MSW students, including a class on clinical practice with military-affiliated families. Students on the military track at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work “are passionate about issues affecting military service members and veterans, and eager to build a career around helping them,” he said. “However, they sometimes lose sight of one vital component: service members and veterans exist within a network of relationships, including the families and marriages that support them.”

As such, Bringhurst hopes to encourage students to consider family-integrated approaches to military social work. One of Bringhurst’s primary goals is educating MSW students about the breadth of clinical and theoretical evidence-based practices and models that can be applied to treat military families and spouses. “I want to expand their understanding of what military social work can and should be,” he said.