Psychology and the military: advancing understanding of the human mind

Robin Williams once said ‘Freud: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother’. For many people, this joke sums up their understanding of what psychology is all about – couches and therapy, hypnosis and mind reading, and maybe Pavlov and his dogs. In fact, psychology is the study of the human mind and how it works, therefore science psychology has something to teach everybody and can be usefully applied in every life situation or working environment. History shows that many of our advances in understanding of the human mind come from psychologists working within or alongside the military – the concept of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a disorder emerged following the American war in Vietnam. More recently, understanding the impact of traumatic brain injuries and concussions sustained by coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has changed the diagnostic and therapeutic landscape for military and civilian personnel with these kinds of injuries.

Military psychology is a discipline in itself and skilled psychologists are an integral part of the British and US military. Where working to help control, limit and manage the stress military personnel experience, looking at ways of supporting military staff to improve their job performance or even sport performance, helping military families adjust to the demands of military life, and studying the most effective use of military equipment and its alignment with human behaviour are just some of the tasks they undertake.

The current President of the British Psychological Society (BPS) – Jamie Hacker Hughes – is himself a military psychologist and pledged to raise awareness of military psychological concerns in the wider political world. The Armed Forces Covenant in the UK makes the nation’s obligation to its armed forces a political priority and one that society must honour. If current and ex-armed forces personnel and their families are not to face disadvantage compared to other citizens in the area of mental health and wellbeing, we will need more psychologists with experience and interest in the psychology of military service, military families and military health and illness.

Military psychologists and psychologists working with ex-military personnel, carry out relevant research, manage and provide mental health services, help injured personnel recover from their wounds, and advise politicians on policy and service provision. Most well-known amongst their activities is the support they offer to ex-military personnel in relation to Post Traumatic Stress, something that has becoming increasingly prevalent following operations in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD can affect service veterans and their families many years after the conclusion of their service.

Recent research by Susan Iacovou, Academic Manager in charge of online psychology programmes at UDOL, reveals just how long lasting the effects of active service can be on ex-servicemen’s relationships. The research, involving a number of Naval veterans of the Falklands’ Conflict, revealed that many of them still found it difficult to maintain relationships with wives or partners, had ongoing challenges with alcohol or drug abuse and felt overwhelming emotions of failure, shame and anger in relation to their experiences.

Interestingly, most of those involved reported huge improvements in their lives and relationships following work with psychologists that enabled them to understand the psychology behind their experiences and reactions.

More psychologists with military experience and understanding are needed to support current and ex-servicemen and women with a wide range of issues. At present waiting lists for services provided within the NHS or by military charities can be very long, often months or even years. At UDOL, we hope to help fill this gap by helping to educate more people in psychology, preparing them for careers as professional psychologists. We can help serving military personnel develop their understanding of psychology and enhance their career options within or outside the military setting through accredited online programmes in psychology delivered entirely online. We understand the needs of military students and their families and aim to offer the full university experience, at a distance. So wherever you are based, you can take a degree or a post graduate qualification psychology or indeed in one of our other topics, such as ergonomics, environmental health or business management.

To find out more about how you could develop your career in psychology visit The University of Derby is an approved ELC provider (number 1276).
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Susan Iacovou, Academic Manager for psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL).