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Social work researchers helping military families connect with community

Historically, the U.S. Armed Forces has maintained a reputation for “taking care of its own.” But with the country still engaged in two wars and nearly half of returning troops diagnosed with some kind of psychological impairment, there is a growing need to strengthen support networks for service members and their families.

Social work researchers at UNC and the University of Georgia are working to do just that through a federally-funded project aimed at building civic engagement and enhancing social connections between military members and the communities where they work and live.

Generally, the goal is to improve the overall health, welfare and resiliency of military troops and their families by ensuring that they have established strong ties with their neighbors, employers, co-workers, schools and faith-based organizations, among others, said Gary L. Bowen, a Kenan Distinguished Professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. Bowen and Jay A. Mancini, a Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor at UGA, are co-principal investigators for the 14-month project that targets active duty, National Guard and Reserve service members and their families.

The project is funded by the Office for the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community & Family Policy and will involve site visits to military installations in six states, including North Carolina and Georgia. Researchers will focus on identifying innovative community capacity building efforts in these states and then develop a training program that teaches armed services agencies and civilian agencies and practitioners how to build community capacity within the U.S. military.

“There are two sides that we’re exploring—the science of community capacity building and the practice of it,” Bowen explained. “We define community capacity as this notion of a shared responsibility—where people feel connected to one another and share responsibility for addressing the needs of their community and making it a better place.”

For example, this shared understanding could include concerns over the general welfare of children, accessible buildings for the disabled or appropriate school resources for at-risk students, Bowen said. “These collective concerns then pull people together to create change within their communities,” he said. “This change process is a community demonstrating collective competence.”

There is a public presumption that military families automatically and easily connect over issues of concern and bond with one another because they share backgrounds and experiences, Bowen said. But national studies show otherwise. In fact, service members are not necessarily well-connected and often avoid engaging with their communities or seeking support, Bowen said. Many also struggle with being away from extended family and from a deployed spouse.

Some service members also are reluctant to seek help because they fear their military careers will be harmed, he added.

“It’s this whole notion of the warrior mentality and not showing vulnerability,” Bowen said. “What will be the consequences if I show up for services, and I report that I’m depressed or that I’m having a family conflict. How will that play out and potentially affect the service member’s career? There’s still a notion of stigma there. Whether real or imagined, perceptions of stigma play out the same way.”

Efforts to form a supportive network are especially difficult for those military families that live off base, including in rural areas away from formal and informal services, Bowen said. Citizen soldiers, or troops in the National Guard or Reserves, face similar challenges because many live hours away from an active military base and in communities where few veteran services are available.

Long-term, families that are not well connected are more vulnerable and may struggle physically, economically and emotionally, Bowen said.
“So the foundational piece of this project will look at how to help military and civilian communities build these connections because the constant in all of this is that people still need people,” he said. “Where vulnerabilities happen for families is when they face issues and they have no one to turn to. And from a social science perspective, if there’s anything we know, it’s that when people are integrated in tight supportive networks, there is an increased probability that they’re going to have higher physical, psychological and social health.”

Over the next few months, the research team will review the literature and evaluate and compare community capacity building programs in the six targeted states, including prevention models with strategies targeting mental illness, substance abuse, at-risk youth, anti-social behaviors, teen pregnancies and school dropouts. The team will then develop a training program that incorporates successful current models and that aims to teach military and civilian agencies how to generate broader support for service members and their families, especially before a crisis. These agencies could include military family and community support centers, local civic groups, mental health service providers, schools and hospitals.

Jodi Flick, a clinical assistant professor at UNC, is helping to lead the evaluation efforts as project director, along with research assistant professor Danielle Swick, (Ph.D. ’07). Flick, who also works as a crisis counselor with the Chapel Hill Police Department, was tapped for the project because of her expertise in suicide prevention and curriculum development. Suicides among military troops have become an increasing problem since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Suicide prevention has become an important focus for the Department of Defense and hopefully, our work will further improve the support that all military members need and help prevent these tragic deaths,” Flick said.

Some military bases have already begun to explore ways to engage troops within their communities, including through projects such as community gardens, which involve members sharing a plot of land to grow vegetables. As people cultivate their crops, they potentially learn to interact more with each other, Bowen said. Such experiments may help researchers better understand how planned activities affect connections.

“What we’re really trying to discover is can we make these connections less random or influence them in a positive and proactive way,” Bowen said.