By Colonel Dr Peter Murphy FAPS, former Director, Defence Force Psychology Organisation, Colonel Dr Stephanie Hodson MAPS, Director, Mental Health and
Head, Australian Army Psychology Corps, and Geoff Gallas MAPS, Director, Psychology Policy and Governance, Department of Defence

The Department of Defence has long provided psychologists with one of the most diverse and challenging workplaces within Australia. Defence is also one of the largest employers of psychologists, with a busy internship program for uniformed psychologists and professional development opportunities second to none. The range of specialist practice that Defence offers is likely to surprise ...

Psychology in the military – diverse beginnings

It is fascinating that the recent disharmony within the profession regarding the relative merits of ‘clinical' and ‘non-clinical' psychology is far from new, having been evident in psychology circles as early as the First World War. Psychometricians in the US are still heard to claim that the mass testing for military service in that war was the first comprehensive challenge met by the fledgling science of psychology. A Euro-centric view is more likely to praise the value of psychology in meeting the challenge of large numbers of soldiers leaving the WW1 battlefields with psychological injuries.

From its earliest years, the field of military psychology showed remarkable diversity in its contributions to the improvement of human performance and wellbeing. A review of the work of British psychologists during the two World Wars (Privy Council Office, 1947) noted 13 distinct areas where contributions were made, including equipment design, training, ‘visual challenges', job analysis, ‘field work', and management of adjustment problems.

The primary objective of psychology in the military is to assist Defence in achieving its mission by contributing to the capability, readiness and effectiveness of its personnel and sociotechnical systems. Unlike most fields within psychology, it is the context of its application that tends to differentiate military psychology. What is often not known by psychologists outside Defence is the significant impact that the field of military psychology has had on the broader science and practice of psychology. Driskell and Olmstead (1989) stated that "perhaps no other institution has been as inextricably linked with the growth and development of psychology as the military" (p.43).

This strong symbiotic relationship between the military and psychology is partly related to the numerous psychology sub-disciplines that are employed, and in part because the military has been at the forefront of many advances and innovations in psychology. For example, the Second World War was the impetus for situational leadership research, numerous training innovations and the rapid expansion of the field of human factors. Regrettably, warfare has been a major source of cases for the management and research of psychoneuroses, brain injuries and traumatic stress reactions. It has been suggested (Leahy, 1997) that the beginnings of modern clinical psychology took root in the busy veterans' hospitals in the US following WW2.

Other psychology sub-disciplines that have benefitted from military challenges and requirements include: psychophysiology (effects of continuous operations); social (integration of women and ethnic minorities); group processes (collective behaviour under stress); rehabilitation (recovery from serious wounds); cross-cultural (tactical negotiation); educational (collective training); clinical (serious stress reactions); individual differences (selection for high-risk occupations); community (support to military families); and experimental (night flying).

Defence psychology in Australia: A proud history

Psychology in Australia made its mark on the military during WW2. High failure rates in flying training led the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to implement psychological procedures for pilot selection in 1940. In 1942, despite reluctance from some senior Army personnel, psychology testing sections were established across Australia, to provide job allocation/reallocation services, investigations into indiscipline, clinical examinations, and advice to officer selection boards (Owens, 1977). An evaluation of Army's new ‘scientific' selection process revealed an impressive reduction in training failures by an average of 90 per cent (Menezes, 2009). By 1943, psychologists were providing rehabilitation services and vocational guidance for repatriated veterans. Emergent tasks included training for operating complex systems, accident investigation and foreign language training.

Many distinguished psychologists served in our military during WW2. Indeed, 12 of the first 13 officers of the Australian Army Psychology Service became either professors of psychology or education in post-war Australia. The 13th became the Director General of Education in New South Wales (Kearney & Hall, 1996).

The use of psychologists in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) continued after the war, particularly in officer selection and personnel management. In 1952, the Australian Army Psychology Corps was established, an arrangement still unique among the armies of the English-speaking world (a Corps being an administrative grouping of troops within an armed force with a common function, such as Artillery). The roles and tasks of both uniformed and civilian military psychologists expanded to include support to recruitment, personnel appraisal and reporting systems, and technical and military training, as well as advice on morale, leadership and mental health. Support from Defence Psychology was also sought by other government departments, notably the Antarctic Division (selection and debriefing of expeditioners), the Australian Federal Police (specialist selection), and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (hostage survival training).

The coveted role of operational deployment was increasingly opened to psychology personnel. Uniformed psychologists served in Vietnam, providing support to ‘hearts and minds' operations, mental health care and personnel management. The surge of peace support operations from the early 1990s further spurred operational support roles for psychology. These roles included field research into the human dimensions of operations, contributing to the wellbeing and performance of deployed personnel, and preparing veterans for transition home (Murphy, Collyer, Cotton & Levey, 2003). Today, Defence Psychology personnel deploy on operations as a matter of routine.

The practice of psychology within Defence has always been underpinned by an emphasis on applied research. Army's 1 Psychology Research Unit and the directorates of Air Force Psychology and Navy Psychology have provided the ADF with formal human science research capability from the 1950s. Routine research tasks have included psychometrics (e.g., culture-fair cognitive ability tests for preliterate peoples in Australia and Papua New Guinea), evaluating social policy (e.g., gender integration), support to human resource management (e.g., correlates of retention) and mental health surveillance.

Since the 1980s, psychology research capabilities within Defence have expanded across a number of branches, including personnel, health and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. This capability has evolved a tri-service focus that is staffed increasingly by civilian researchers. Research tasks have broadened to include attitude and opinion surveys, performance enhancement and psychological climate interventions. Predictive workforce planning and training programs for psychological resilience are two recent research initiatives.

Psychology in Defence today

A substantial integration of the individual Service Psychology agencies in the mid-1990s led to the formation of the Defence Force Psychology Organisation (DFPO). Although there still remain a number of autonomous Defence Psychology agencies (e.g., Army Psychology, Navy Reserve Psychology), these agencies generally operate under technical guidance formulated via a representative committee of Principal Psychologists. A more recent restructure saw the command and control of the DFPO move from the personnel to the health domain - what is now known as Joint Health Command. A result of this move has been an increasing emphasis on policy and service provision related to mental health. A review into the mental health care of ADF personnel during and after service (Dunt, 2009) has recently strengthened this focus.

The stated mission of Defence Psychology is to enhance ADF capability, operational effectiveness and force preservation through timely, pragmatic and culturally appropriate psychological support across all levels of the organisation. A model for the delivery of psychological support has three pillars reflecting the three core components of service provision: Organisational health and effectiveness, performance enhancement, and psychological health and readiness (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Model of delivery of psychological support to the ADF

Each pillar contributes to the three mission outcomes listed at the top of the model. For example, force preservation spans the three pillars because it is not just about improved retention (organisational health and effectiveness); it also includes prevention of accidents (via enhanced performance), and faster adjustment and improved resilience when deployed (health and readiness). The figure also lists typical tasks and issues associated with each of the pillars, and shows the three major enabling foundations for effective delivery. Not surprisingly, several human science sub-disciplines provide the professional bases of each pillar. For example, performance enhancement tasks would utilise expertise from the domains of human factors, cognitive psychology, psychophysiology, social psychology and sport psychology.

Defence Psychology in action

Responding to tragedy. Defence Psychology provided a range of support in the aftermath of the helicopter crash on the island of Nias, Indonesia in April 2005. Nine ADF personnel died in the accident, which occurred during a humanitarian assistance mission. A psychology officer specialising in aviation human factors was attached to the Accident Investigation Team. Navy psychologists deployed to provide critical incident mental health support to the crew of HMAS Kanimbla. A team of psychologists and psychological examiners provided support to personnel at the accident squadron's home station. Psychological advice was provided to those working in various roles at the accident site. Where necessary, psychologists provided or facilitated ongoing mental health support. Another psychology officer was a member of the Accident Board of Inquiry, and a number of psychologists either provided evidence to the Inquiry or helped to implement its recommendations to improve safety systems in the ADF.

Aid to the civil community. Defence psychologists were rapidly deployed to support the response to the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009. Defence psychologists are well qualified to assist in such situations due to their operational experience in theatres of conflict, where they provide support to personnel routinely exposed to widespread destruction and human suffering. Several teams were dispatched in ‘first contact' roles to engage with survivors who had remained with their homes in isolated environs. Other psychologists and examiners, civilian and Reservist, conducted psychological screening and follow-on support for the hundreds of military personnel who had provided assistance in the fires‘ aftermath.

Specialist support to Australians in need. Quite recently, Defence psychologists were deployed overseas as part of a whole-of-government response to support an Australian held hostage for an extended period in a country ravaged by civil unrest. One of the potential risks for deployed military personnel is being captured by hostile forces, so Defence Psychology maintains expertise in preparing personnel for this risk and assisting released prisoners of war - and hostages - with readjustment post-captivity. Prior to the release of the captive Australian, family members were provided guidance about the likely challenges and stages of readjustment ahead. When released, the Australian was offered a comprehensive assessment and recovery program according to principles such as sanctuary, psychological decompression and graduated return to independence. 


Deployment-related psychological support

The operational tempo of the ADF has been growing over the past two decades. During this period, psychological support to our deployed personnel has evolved constantly. This support is linked to the deployment continuum, which views deployment as comprising three stages: pre-, during and post-deployment. Pre-deployment support is concerned with preparing the deploying force, particularly by fostering psychological readiness through training and education. Support during deployment has two main strands: maintaining the wellbeing of our people and enhancing their performance. Post-deployment support deals with various issues of transition (Murphy, 2010). Transition-related psychological support occurs at two points in the deployment continuum - in-country towards the end of deployment, and between three and six months following homecoming. The aims of psychological support at these two points include:

  • Identifying personnel in need of professional assistance and taking appropriate action
  • ‘Validating' the deployment experience of our personnel by fostering a sense of meaning and satisfaction from their role
  • Preparing personnel for the challenges of homecoming
  • Demonstrating ADF concern for its members
  • Enhancing understanding of the human dimension of operations to assist future training, support activities and policy.

In-country support includes a group-delivered psycho-educational brief about homecoming, a self-report questionnaire with validated measures, and an individual interview with a specially trained mental health professional. Questionnaire domains include non-traumatic stressors, traumatic exposures, psychological distress, career intentions, positive and negative deployment experiences and morale. Support in Australia has a similar structure, but without a group briefing and with the inclusion of an alcohol screen. Outcomes of these support processes can include monitoring, further assessment and/or intervention.

Screening for early intervention is only part of the mental health picture. There must be a broader system that promotes health education and individual responsibility, and erodes stigma and barriers to care. To this end, commanders have the option of conducting supplemental activities to explore issues such as unit climate and psychological status. The ADF is considering options for continuous mental health monitoring. Systematic research is ongoing, for example, Defence soon will conduct a mental health prevalence study to establish baselines and refine screening procedures as part of the Military Health Outcomes Program.

Roles for defence psychology personnel

Defence psychology comprises civilian and military psychologists, and psychological examiners and assistants (see boxed information) based in numerous locations around the country. There are about 60 civilian psychologists and assistants across Defence, with several new positions established in the past 12 months as the latest mental health strategy is implemented. Civilian psychologists are usually required to be fully registered before commencing employment within Defence.

There are about 70 uniformed psychologists in the Australian Regular Army, ranging in rank from Lieutenant to Colonel. At present, Regular Army (full-time) psychologists can be commissioned with a recognised fourth year and undertake a two-year internship as Lieutenants. Army psychology officers are posted to a range of commands and specialist capabilities, including health, Special Forces, intelligence, research and aviation. Fifty psychological examiners in the Regular Army provide para-professional support to psychologists, and range in rank from Private soldier to Warrant Officer. A proportion of examiners study psychology with the intention of being commissioned as psychology officers. Males and females are equally represented among Regular Army psychologists and psychological examiners.

The Army Reserve has 100 psychology officer and 100 psychological examiner positions. Navy Reserve Psychology has about 30 officer positions and the RAAF Psychology Reserves are small but growing. Reserve (part-time) psychologists must be fully registered to be commissioned.

Defence Psychology places a strong emphasis on professional development and professional engagement outside Defence. A Master of Psychology program in Occupational Mental Health for current Defence psychologists in collaboration with the University of Adelaide will commence mid-2010. A Defence Psychology conference is convened every two years. There are also several opportunities for international engagement on exchanges, technical panels and collaborative research projects.

Army psychology personnel undertake general military training courses (e.g., involving Army customs, weapons handling, drill, military administration and fitness) as well as professional psychology training. Such training is part of a career structure that is intended to prepare the psychologist and examiner to meet the diverse demands that arise in deployed environments and to support the development of specialist skill sets. Uniformed psychologists can expect to be posted to new positions every two to three years. For full-time personnel, this often means an interstate transfer. In some postings, personnel can spend several months each year deployed in support of operations in Australia and overseas. Appropriately trained Reserve members are increasingly deployed to support operations.

Psychologists new to Defence, both uniformed and civilian, could expect to be employed in diverse roles including selection, counselling, vocational assessment, post-operational support, mental health promotion and training, outpatient treatment and research. At more senior levels, responsibilities broaden to include the supervision, training and management of junior psychologists, conduct of specialist selection boards and policy formulation.

Psychological examiners and assistants 

A unique feature of Defence Psychology is its workforce of psychology para-professionals known as psychological examiners (Army) or psychological assistants (those not in uniform). The psychological examiner trade has been providing Defence with specialist psychological testing and administration services since 1942.

Under the supervision of a Defence psychologist, the examiner undertakes a range of duties including test administration, records management, screening, psycho-educational presentations, research tasks such as survey administration and data entry, and the management of a psychological practice in the context of a military unit. Additional duties of an examiner deployed in support of military operations may include provision of psychological first aid, the conduct of brief mental health interventions (within competencies), liaison with supported units and the care of psychological casualties.

Underlying the capability of the psychological examiner role has been significant competency augmentation over the past ten years. Civil accreditation under the Australian Qualifications Framework has led to recognition of the training provided by Army, including: Certificate III in Psychological Testing and Administration, Certificate IV in Mental Health (Non-clinical), and Diploma in Government (Management). Selection criteria for examiners include a specified cognitive ability level, a Year 12 certificate, and qualities such as empathy, interpersonal competence, and adaptability. Examiners are widely regarded as credible and effective. Validation research of psychological screening has shown that many soldiers prefer to engage in the psychological support process with examiners of like rank.

There are several specified limitations on the scope of practice of the examiner. Provision of psychology or mental health support is restricted to interventions the examiner has been specifically trained for and deemed competent in. These may include arousal reduction, relaxation techniques, and anger management. Examiners always work under the supervision of a psychologist.

Psychological examiners and assistants constitute a cornerstone of the delivery of psychological and mental health support within the ADF. It is axiomatic that a proficient examiner substantially increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the psychologists he or she supports. Our experience suggests that it is a paraprofessional role worthy of serious consideration by the psychology profession outside the military. 



Since its beginnings during WW2, psychology in the military in Australia has forged a reputation for professionalism and innovation. The guiding principles for Defence psychologists - timeliness, pragmatism, multi-level application, cultural fit, multidisciplinary cooperation and professional mastery - have blended into a unique ethos. This ethos is characterised by a sense of identification with the proud traditions of the ADF and a spirit of service to the nation. Defence psychologists embark on a journey of continuous learning and constant, real-world challenges, both personal and professional. The scope of practice is potentially broad yet contains the requirement for deep and sometimes unique specialisations. A career as a Defence psychologist affords excellent, perhaps unrivalled, opportunities for wide-ranging professional development, and for practice across the country and in some of the unlikeliest workplaces around the globe.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and should not be taken to represent Department of Defence policy or standpoint.

The principal author can be contacted at


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