Most soldiers who serve in Iraq are never injured by bullets or roadside bombs. But that doesn’t mean they return unscarred.
For about one in five soldiers, the mental and emotional tolls of war require professional treatment — treatment that seven students and graduates from Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology are helping to provide.
At Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., the seven alumni — an unusually large cluster in one location — have worked with a large team of psychologists to screen soldiers for mental health disorders and treat everything from sleep troubles to severe anxiety.
“Some disorders are not unlike what I would have seen in any other clinical setting — just people struggling with stress management and depression,” said Capt. Katie Kopp (Ph.D. ’08), a clinical psychology intern at the post’s Madigan Army Medical Center. “Then there are things that are pretty specific to the military population — people struggling to maintain their relationships or working to reintegrate into their home life once they return from deployment, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”
In their internships, residencies and staff positions, the alumni — Kopp, Capt. Mark Baird (Psy.D. ’06), Joel Mitchell (Ph.D. ’07), Capt. Daniel Pelton (Ph.D. ’08), Mark Reger (Ph.D. ’01) and Capt. Jason Stolee (Ph.D. ’07) and Capt. Kerith Tarantino (Psy.D. ’06) — have provided a range of services for the soldiers through the hospital’s psychology department. (Baird and Tarantino were scheduled to leave the hospital for deployment prior to publication.)
At times, the work involves therapy sessions aimed at helping new veterans readjust to life after war. At others, it includes counseling soldiers who are anxious about leaving for Iraq or family members who are coping with worry.
Psychologists at the post also screen every soldier for mental health problems three to six months after returning from deployment.
“You get to see a variety of soldiers — many of whom are high-functioning, bright, motivated and adjusting quite well to life back at home,” said Mitchell, a civilian staff psychologist at the hospital.
In other cases, psychologists face the challenge of treating soldiers who have just returned from Iraq with extremely complicated treatment issues, Mitchell said.
“Given that medicine has progressed as far as it has, soldiers are now surviving injuries … that would have killed them 10 or 20 years ago,” he said. “So, many of the soldiers coming back are coping with both psychological traumas, as well as neurological and other physical impairments.”
Baird, who finished a year of residency at Madigan earlier this year, said Rosemead’s emphasis on the integration of psychology and theology has been especially helpful at times when patients start talking about issues of faith.
“I don’t have the fear that a soldier’s going to bring up his spiritual side or how different things are affecting him or her spiritually,” Baird said. “I have a lot of confidence going into it, where some others … who haven’t been trained like that are just a little more leery about it.”
As the sole research psychologist of the seven, Reger said his work is more focused on developing new treatment options for soldiers. One of his areas of research involves using technology to improve upon the best existing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, “prolonged exposure therapy,” which requires soldiers to imagine some of their difficult experiences in vivid detail, he said.
“The basic idea is that if prolonged exposure therapy works because soldiers emotionally engage with traumatic experiences, can virtual reality be used in a safe way augmented with standard approaches to improve outcomes?” Reger said.
The high concentration of Rosemead alumni at Madigan is due in part to an Army scholarship awarded to several of them over the past few years. The program pays for a portion of graduate psychology schooling in exchange for four years of active-duty service.
With so many students and graduates in one place, impromptu alumni meetings have been common, they said.
“I see a Rosemead person every day,” Baird said earlier this year, before his scheduled deployment. “We laugh about it. Some have really good contact with the professors, so we find out what’s going on back there.”