Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Every Tuesday, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.
As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).
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It should not surprise you to hear that employment is critical for good mental health and can even be part of the treatment for your clients who may have mental health issues. Even though you are not a career counselor, you can still have an enormous impact on your Veteran clients by helping them in their search for post-military employment. This blog will outline the mental health benefits of employment and explain why you should consider integrating the issue of employment into your repertoire of tools for helping your clients. It then suggests how you can help your Veteran clients with their search for employment and lists resources that you can use with them.
The Psychological Impact on Employment and Unemployment for Veterans
Anyone who has been out of work can speak to the negative effect that unemployment can have on the psyche. This effect is even more pronounced for Veterans because most members of the military tend to be mission or purpose-driven in their lives. Our military is made up of volunteers so this means that our Veterans self-selected themselves into the military culture, and many did this because they possessed a strong sense of mission or purpose. Once in uniform, this sense of purpose is intensified through the military’s culture and the training.
The positive connections between employment and mental health have been demonstrated by the research literature on positive psychology and learned helplessness. Under these theories employment has been shown to help individuals regain a feeling of mastery and the sense that they can cope with life’s demands. Instead of being isolated at home, a job provides a source of socialization that averts the feelings of social withdrawal. The major psychological assessment and treatment tools are now incorporating employment as one aspect of treatment: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) includes employment in the treatment for PTSD (Criterion F) and for schizophrenia (B) while the World Health’s Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) has done the same.
The negative psychological effects of unemployment on a Veteran can be intensified by friends or family members who do not understand what their Veteran is experiencing, think that the Veteran is wasting their time during the day, being picky by not accepting a particular offer, or do not understand why the Veteran is so depressed. In addition, the search for a civilian job can be particularly frustrating for a Veteran since, while in the military, one’s career usually progressed smoothly and through clearly-defined steps. This is not typically the case in the civilian world where progress often occurs erratically and usually because one networked for the new position. Further complicating the civilian job search process for Veterans is that in the military, the “hiring official” (i.e., the superior officer) shared the same background and language, while in the civilian world, the hiring official may not even understand the military terms and jargon on a resume. Also, many Veterans see the process of networking for a job (which is critical for finding employment in the civilian world) as a form of begging, an activity often viewed as beneath them.
In addition to negatively impacting the psychology of the individual, unemployment has been shown to adversely impact a Veteran’s family as well (e.g., through the financial cost to the family and depression impacting the lives of the other family members). Veteran unemployment and under-employment also hurts our nation financially and in its economic development.
Instead of contributing their talents and military training to enhance the larger community, the unemployed Veteran is now collecting unemployment insurance (rather than paying taxes through their paychecks).
How You Can Help
As a clinician, you can provide assistance to help your Veteran clients find and maintain good jobs. Many Veterans and their family members might normally be reluctant to talk about their job search troubles, but if you have established a trusting relationship with them, you may be a great avenue for them to find out about this kind of information. Your client might mention employment concerns in passing, but this could provide you with an opening to explore the topic and offer suggestions. You can also use your time with your clients to probe concerns that they may have about getting a job, explore what motivates them, and then be able to offer suggestions and make recommendations for books, programs, or resources. You can then offer modifications and suggestions to overcome the obstacles that arise in any job search. You can help your clients honestly evaluate their interests, skills, temperament, and abilities and then help them realize how difficult it is to transition to a new environment such as the civilian working world. You can guide your clients on how to learn civilian communications skills. As an example, in the military one learns to offer brief responses that are direct and to-the-point. By contrast, most civilians expect some small talk and longer conversations. You may be able to help your clients become aware of the cultural differences between the military and civilian worlds and help them to learn how to better communicate in this new environment.
Tools and Resources Available to Help the Job Seeking Veteran
The following resources are available at no cost for our nation’s Veterans and Service members. Consider referring your clients to these resources and encourage them to use them. You may be able to overcome your client’s reluctance to use some of these tools by reminding them that these resources are provided by the government free of charge and to not use them would be like leaving part of their paycheck behind on the table.
I hope this advice and these resources will be helpful for your clients. I wish you and them the best of luck and thank you for your work supporting our Service members and Veterans.
Nathan D. Ainspan, Ph.D. is the Research Psychologist with the Transition to Veterans Program Office (TVPO) at the Department of Defense. He has conducted research, written, and spoken extensively about military transitions of military members to civilian life. His research has focused on improving civilian employment opportunities for returning service members and the psychosocial benefits that employment brings to wounded warriors and injured veterans. He has also authored and edited dozens of publications, including the books When the Warrior Returns: Making the Transition at Home,(Naval Institute Press, 2012) and Returning Wars’ Wounded, Injured, and Ill: A Handbook (Praeger, 2008). He is also a member of the editorial board of the journal Military Psychology. He is a Fellow of Division 18 (Psychologists in Public Service) and Division 19 (Military Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. He received his PhD in 1999 from Cornell University.