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Passing on the skills

News, Veterans

Jane Pool has learned a lot during almost two decades of working with veterans and their families – including the importance of educating families and friends about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Jane Pool is a social worker and family therapist who has worked with veterans since 2001, providing counselling and running group programs and outreach programs. Now, she uses this experience to provide expert advice to the Anzac Centre’s Practitioner Support Service.

“One key thing I have learned over the years is that we have put a lot of resources into working with veterans with mental health problems and we’ve done a good job of that. But we haven’t always done as well in educating partners and families about things like PTSD,” says Jane.

“Veterans tend to be quite knowledgeable about their mental health, but we need to ensure we have a more family-focussed approach that involves partners and families in the counselling process.”

She encourages other practitioners to see the importance of educating family and friends, and recommends working in a ‘family-inclusive’ way.

“If PTSD is an issue, I always check what a veteran’s understanding is of PTSD and find out what it’s like for them to live with that. And I ask the veteran what the issues are for the partner and children living with someone with a major mental health problem. How do they think their children are travelling? How do they think their partner might feel? And what are the challenges that the family might be dealing with?”

The most common symptoms of PTSD, such as irritability, withdrawal and emotional numbing, can impact family functioning. “The parent who suffers from PTSD can be significantly withdrawn, so everyday things like going to a parent-teacher night, a school performance, or watching their child play football can be taxing for them.”

Adolescent children can be quite attuned to their parent’s condition and the issues it causes in the family, wanting to make things better for their parent and the family.”

The veteran’s partner, often female, is usually the one bearing the brunt of the effects. She may be required to take on multiple roles: mother, carer, and perhaps dad too, and may try and buffer difficult interactions between the veteran and children.

“Add to that the inherent challenges of some military families – coping with different postings every few years, different schools, job instability for the non-military partner, and being away from family and social support – and in some cases these can lead to feelings of disconnection from family and community,” says Jane.

Practitioners working with veterans with mental health issues play a significant role in educating families and close friends about those issues, the importance of getting effective treatment and support, and how to take care of themselves and their family and friendship group.

Jane says that, when treating a veteran, “The aim is to get to a point where PTSD has less impact on day-to-day life and relationships, and to create some normality and stability. The effects will flow on to the partner and children. One veteran I worked with said to me, ‘Well, I’ve finally stopped treating my family as soldiers’, and I thought, job done! To work with families where there is a crack, and help them develop skills and strategies to patch that up before it becomes a fracture, is very rewarding.”