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Working as a psychologist in the military

With Glen Menezes

I was a soldier in the Australian Regular Army, employed as a clerk and studying psychology part-time, when I was selected to complete my fourth year qualification on an Army sponsorship. I have subsequently completed a Master of Arts (Research) degree. On completion of my degree I was commissioned as a psychology officer, and spent eight years in the Australian Army Psychology Corps before taking up a position in Navy Psychology, as a civilian, at Crib Point in Victoria and later at Garden Island in Western Australia. My current role is in the public service as the Director of Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service - WA (VVCS).

Early in my career as a military psychologist I honed my skills in psychometric and vocational assessment to enable the selection of personnel for military service and their allocation to specific jobs in the ADF. A particularly interesting role was as the psychological adviser on Army Selection Boards, a group selection procedure for selecting officers for the Army. I found the process of the leaderless group interesting and the task of selecting future military leaders very challenging and satisfying. Other roles in military psychology included counselling (effectively an EAP service), developing and presenting psycho-education programs, trauma debriefing, briefing and debriefing soldiers and sailors returning from operational deployments and policy development.

Later in my career, as a senior military psychologist, I held a leadership and service delivery function. A major part of the work was responding to requests from Command (military executives) for psychological advice on a range of issues relating to personnel, training, research and operations. There were also increasing requests for conducting psycho-education for military personnel in areas such as interviewing and negotiation skills, basic counselling, stress management, suicide awareness, managing the transition from military to civilian life, psychological adjustment after deployment, as well as the clinical topics of trauma, depression and anxiety.

My Army postings took me to bases in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth, and during my time with Navy Psychology I worked at HMAS Cerberus (Vic) and HMAS Stirling (WA). The wide variety of tasks whilst in the military was most appealing. Working for the ADF required the use of my core skills as a psychologist, including psychometric testing and clinical assessments. Helping managers and leaders solve the psychological and psychosocial issues that arise in the military has also been at the forefront of my practice of psychology. Analysing and interpreting human behaviour are key skills, but being able to generate a workable solution that is expressed in lay terms, and with practical applications, is what the ADF most requires of its psychologists.

In my current role at VVCS, I am responsible for overseeing a range of mental health services to veterans and their families in WA. The service is for veterans of all conflicts and eligible family members. In addition to providing a managerial and supervisory function for the staff psychologists and social workers, services such as counselling, psycho-educational and treatment group programs, case management and an advisory and on referral service are provided. The service also provides a prior approval and clinical monitoring program over the counselling provided by contract counsellors. In addition to leading the service delivery, policy development and implementation, and engagement with a range of stakeholders (such as the Returned and Services League), consumer groups, general practioners and psychiatrists, and contracted psychologists and social workers are other key features of my current role. A recent innovation in VVCS has been providing counselling services to clients via video-conference technology, so that clients in remote parts of WA can access the service. It is both interesting and challenging in providing services via new technologies.

When I have needed guidance in my work, it has been my strategy to bounce ideas off my peers and more experienced colleagues. There are three individuals I consider to be mentors, one who works in an academic setting, and two who are eminent, highly-regarded military psychologists.

Students should be prepared to sample all aspects of psychology in the workplace before choosing to specialise. Ethical issues, in particular boundaries, dual roles, confidentiality and privacy, and records have been a regular feature of the professional challenges that I have faced in various settings. Employers are seeking your professional expertise and skills, and for you to provide them with an opinion. Do not be afraid to do so. Also, when writing psychological reports in a workplace setting, be succinct and express your opinions in practical, meaningful ways so that managers can apply your recommendations.