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Counseling Without a Chaplain?

There is an idea among military families that in order to receive marriage help, you have to see a chaplain. It makes sense: the programs that you hear most about or seem most available about are those run out of chapels or by chaplains.

We’re here to report that perception is incorrect.

While many marriage support initiatives, such as the Army’s go-to program Strong Bonds, are run through the chaplain’s office, military sponsored programs do exist that are not. And though they may not be as heavily funded (or expensive to run) as Strong Bonds, which is set to receive upwards of $100 million this year, they are available for those wishing to steer clear of anything religious.

Instead of being linked to chaplains, these programs are often tied-in with the mental health side of things — an association that can give them their own stigma, says Kirsten Woodward, family programs division director for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. She oversees a Navy medicine run counseling program called FOCUS.

FOCUS, which will receive about $8 million in funding this fiscal year, is available at 23 installations, including a handful of Army and Air Force bases. While the series of private family sessions included in it are similar to what you would receive from a secular counselor, the Navy prefers to bill it as a psychological health program, Woodward said.

“We don’t use terms like ‘counseling’ and ‘mental health,’” she said. “It’s in an office, it’s private, it’s confidential — we gather very little demographic information on our families… we don’t even ask for rank … It’s very important that families feel comfortable.”

The program puts heavy emphasis on an analysis feature that asks families to take a series of assessment surveys on a variety of topics, such as deployment history and coping skills. The counselors use the information from these to cater the program to the family’s specific education and intervention needs.

Services like FOCUS, Woodward said, can be key to helping a family reintegrate after separation.

“Saying ‘we’re back as a family’ can be challenging. To put a group of people back together and expect them to hold hands and walk in the park is not the easiest thing to do,” she said. “The first step of that is understanding … and getting back on the same page.”

The key question to ask about any military sponsored counseling program is whether or not it actually works. Woodward said that about 95 percent of the 160,000 service and family members who have used the program since it started in 2007 report back four to six months later that the information is still beneficial. Some return for follow-up sessions.

One of the unique things about FOCUS is its availability military wide — not just within its sponsoring service. Starting in 2009 it became available on a handful of Air Force and Army bases.

But like many other great military sponsored services that fall through the information cracks, FOCUS is not widely known in some places. On Joint Base Lewis McChord, for example, the program is housed at the Warrior Transition Battalion building, said the program’s site director there. That location is far removed from other family services programs run through Army Community Services, lowering its visibility.

Crosby said that the enormous size of the joint installation, combined with the fact that they are a relatively new service, makes it hard for them to get word out about the program. But she also pointed to another, greater problem that we’ve talked about before: so many resources, so many families and no easy way to connect the two.

“Because the installation has so many resources for families, there is a global disconnect between many services, and I’ve heard various other providers talk about their similar difficulties of marketing and getting the word out about their programs, as well as educating the families and military members of what types of services are appropriate for different needs,” she said. “There are a lot of events at JBLM that FOCUS would love the opportunity to present at, to help get the word out. However, to my knowledge there isn’t a central online place for us to learn ahead of time so that we can schedule to attend. So a lot of our marketing efforts involve going to meetings, gathering new names and phone numbers, and then moving forward with those new contacts to set up new meetings, etc. In other words, it becomes a slow process to get the word out to everyone.”

Crosby said, like other FOCUS sites, they are working feverishly to get word out to military families about the program. Meanwhile, to see if FOCUS is available at an installation near you, visit the FOCUS Project’s website.

About Amy Bushatz

Amy is the managing editor of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is an Associate Editor. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on NPR and in the New York Times. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.