United States military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant extended troop deployments and stress on families back home. Gaining a better understanding of the issues faced by military personnel and their families is the goal for a team of researchers at Illinois State University.

The team is working with Illinois National Guard soldiers and their families, as well as teachers and counseling professionals to assess the effectiveness of reintegration programs, determine the impact of military deployment on a child’s performance in school and learn what soldiers look for in a mental health counselor.

“Veterans and their families face a number of very unique challenges,” said researcher Mark Swerdlik, an Illinois State psychology professor. “The Illinois National Guard has a number of programs in place to assist soldiers and their families both during and after a deployment. Our research is focused on the needs and concerns of veterans and military families and is helping the Guard enhance the programs and services it offers.”

Swerdlik and faculty colleagues began working with the Illinois National Guard in 2008. Department of Psychology faculty members Jeff Kahn, Adena Meyers and Joel Schneider, along with several graduate and undergraduate students are involved in the research, which is funded by a grant from the National Guard Association of Illinois.

A current study focuses on understanding issues surrounding mental health counseling for military personnel.

“As more veterans return from deployments, there may be strains on the Veterans Administration to provide counseling services,” Swerdlik said. “This study is part of a larger effort to ensure that counselors in private practice are well-prepared to meet the unique needs of veterans and the increased demand for counseling services. The new study asks returning soldiers about the traits they value most in a mental health professional.”

According to the soldiers surveyed, the characteristics rated as most important include a counselor’s availability and formal training, a counselor’s level of respect for military values, an understanding of the needs of military families and a counselor’s clean, well-groomed appearance. Characteristics that rank as less important include office location and atmosphere, formality of dress and communication of political views.

Swerdlik and his colleagues are also gathering data on the educational needs of children who have a deployed parent. A survey has been distributed to teachers in schools near military installations in Illinois and to families of Illinois National Guard soldiers.

The study asks teachers and parents to indicate whether or not they feel those students have unique educational and social needs and how schools are meeting the needs of children from military families. The study is also gathering teacher and parent feedback on the services provided by the Illinois National Guard Child and Youth Program, which provides support to soldiers’ families and training programs in school districts.

A study completed in 2009 assessed the effectiveness of an Illinois National Guard program helping soldiers transition back to civilian life after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. A survey showed that soldiers and their families found the information and services provided by the program to be very helpful in overcoming reintegration challenges.

The survey results also showed that experiences in the reintegration process varied according to soldier demographics. Married respondents indicated that intimacy and communication in relationships, handling finances and dealing with another person’s mood were challenges. Males indicated an easier adjustment in the workforce compared to females.

“Not surprisingly, the support and involvement of family and community members was found to be vitally important to a soldier’s successful transition to life at home after wartime service,” said Swerdlik.

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