Local Programs Give a Psychoanalytic Voice to Welcoming Home Service Members and Veterans

The stories are becoming tragically familiar: statistics for military and veteran suicides rival combat as a cause of death among those who have served. Return to civilian life can be problematic for many veterans and their loved ones – at best, it is a significant readjustment stress for everyone involved. The civilian population continues in its denial of the stark fact it has been supporting and funding one of the longest wars in U.S. history. Military and veterans' mental health systems mimic the larger mental health community's emphasis on symptom and disease–focused, evidenced based treatments while familiarity with old and vital tools such as attending to the human connection and developing a shared sense of meaning and story in therapy fade to invisible.

Psychoanalysts have been deeply involved in the treatment of war trauma since the World War I. Many analysts today are eager to help, believing in the importance of the therapeutic relationship and that the exploration of meaning, conflict, guilt, shame, disillusionment and moral injury as essential to effective treatment. Yet we are often at a loss when trying to think about what we can actually DO to help.

The humble and time tested tool of participating in local conferences is an excellent way to inject psychoanalytic ideas into the conversation about veterans and service members' well-being and the complex challenges the civilian population faces as we also come home from war. Sponsored public lectureships are another format that introduces psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic ideas into the broader conversation.

APsaA's Service Members and Veterans Initiative encourages all local psychoanalytic communities to consider sponsoring symposia and conferences for mental health professionals and the general public about the challenges faced by homecoming service members and the communities into which they are reintegrating. 

Some general suggestions:

  1. Invite speakers from local VA hospitals, DOD facilities and National Guard units—not only do they have a lot to offer, but these invitations start a two way conversation that can be immensely enriching
  2. Avoid isolated theorizing—make sure speakers have real clinical and/or research experience in military culture and deployment mental health
  3. Be prepared to learn and avoid arrogance
  4. Use conferences to establish ongoing conversations with individuals providing care to veterans and service members. Be sure to track attendees and keep them connected to your institute or society.
  5. Consider expanding your usual outreach parameters when publicizing a meeting, include people working with veterans at community colleges, homeless shelters, substance abuse programs and the like, these people are often very grateful for educational opportunities and often find psychoanalytic ideas (such as transference, resistance and countertransference) very useful in their day to day work.

Highlighted below are several programs that local groups have already sponsored. We hope these can serve as inspiration for other local psychoanalytic communities that want to address the needs of returning troops.

  • In June 2012, the Los Angeles LAISPS, in conjunction with The Soldiers' Project, hosted their third annual conference, "A Pathway Home: Challenges and Solutions." The conference was designed for mental health professionals, military service members and their loved ones, service providers and the general public. The conference focused on veterans returning to college, military children and families, and the power of the arts to convey the complexities of war and healing. Among the presenters were Judith Broder, founder and director of The Soldiers Project, filmmaker Paul Freedman, and Keith Jeffreys, founder, of the U.S. Veterans' Artists Alliance. Information on conferences sponsored by The Soldiers Project is available on its website.
  • Chicago's Institute for Clinical Social Work (ICSW) sponsored a 2-day conference in May 2012, entitled "The Emotional Wounds of War: Clinical Work with Military, Veterans and their Families." Topics included reintegrating America's returning warriors to the workplace and their families, trauma and moral injuries of war, and treating acute regressions. Speakers included active duty military psychiatrists Mark Stephens and Russell Carr and psychologist Jeffrey Yarvis as well as faculty of the ICSW's Military and Veterans Social Work Specialization, a track in the Institute's social work doctoral program for those whose clinical practice focuses on working with members of the military or veterans.
  •  "PTSD: The Ongoing War" was a 2-day conference sponsored by the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in in December 2011. The conference featured a viewing of John Huston's classic and long-suppressed documentary film "Let there be Light" which depicts the treatment of PTSD using a psychoanalytic approach during World War II. Speakers at the conference included psychoanalysts who described their experience working at Veterans Administration hospitals post-Vietnam and in the military during the Korean War. Other speakers were currently involved in clinical work and research on topics such as the effect of combat and operational tempo on soldiers, veterans and their families, stress, culture and community, and treatment of PTSD. Colonel Carl Castro, Ph.D, Stevan Hobfall, Ph.D. and Joseph Yount were among the featured speakers.

The lessons of war trauma and reintegration into society can sometimes be seen more clearly when the focus is on war injury occurring at a great distance from our own country—highlighting universal challenges and themes can bring them into sharper relief.

  • An upcoming public lecture entitled "Trauma and Resilience: Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone" will be held in October 2012. It is being sponsored by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute as part of their Academic Research Seminar series. The speaker will be Roberto Ravera, who is a professor in Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology at the University of Genoa, Italy and Director of the Mental Health Project for Child Soldiers and Children in Sierra Leone. 

Please notify the SVI of any other local programs relating to service members and veterans, both past and future; send us information and links to your conference publicity information and we will add it to these webpages.

Prudence Gourguechon, M.D.