Coping Skills of Military Families Focus of Research

July 20, 2010
Dr. James W. Ellor, professor of social work, and Dr. Dennis R. Myers, newly named Dorothy Barfield Kronzer Professor in Family Studies, are conducting focus groups in Central Texas as an initial step in a research project that will try to determine effective ways to help military families cope with deployment - before, during and after.

Upcoming focus groups

The first focus groups were held in June. Additional focus groups are scheduled for 7 p.m. on three evenings, July 21, 27 or 28, at First Presbyterian Church, 4705 East Rancier Ave., Killeen, and at 6:30 p.m. July 26, at the Getterman Wellness Center, 7300 Bosque Blvd., Waco. Participation is voluntary.

The School of Social Work's graduate degree program typically has at least one to two students in each incoming class married or engaged to an active-duty Soldier. The student carries a full course load and internship schedule and often functions as a single parent. Support networks of family, friends, faith groups and others have proven essential for these students to succeed, said Myers, who served as the school's associate dean for graduate studies until June. One of those support networks is the school itself.

"In the spring semester, we had two MSW students in this situation," said Myers, who is a veteran from the Vietnam era. One graduate student was newly married to a Soldier who was about to be shipped out. The other was married to an officer who has been deployed multiple times. That couple has a small son who was chronically ill her first year in the program.

"We worked with her to keep her connected even though she had to step out for one semester," Myers said. "Both graduated this past May."

Fine-tuning survey

Ellor said the focus groups are an integral component of the research and will help the team fine-tune its survey materials.

"What we are looking at in this stage are questions about coping skills, both for the parents and spouses at home and the deployed Soldier," he said. "Later, we hope to see how coping and resilience skills impact positively or negatively on individuals in the family and the family unit."

Ellor provided examples of what they hope to learn. For instance:

• How does the 9-year-old son learn to cope with a parent's absence by observing his mother or father deal with it?
• Do parents impart to their children coping skills they can call upon if they enter the military?
• How does a newly married spouse cope with the deployment of her husband or wife?
• How do parents support their deployed daughter who is routinely in harm's way?

Social workers in VA system

Social work is an appropriate field to lead in research that can help strengthen military families, Myers said. Strengthening families and communities is one of the primary missions of the Baylor School of Social Work.

In addition, numerous social workers work with individuals who are active military or veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the largest employer of professional social workers in the nation, said Matthew Schobert, LMSW, LCSW, Administrative Officer of Social Work Service at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System.

Schobert, a Baylor alumnus with a dual graduate degree in divinity and social work, said the Central Texas system for which he works has doubled the number of social workers on staff in the past two years, and he believes that number will continue to increase. As of December 2009, nine on the staff were graduates of Baylor School of Social Work.

"Social workers excel in navigating the system," Schobert said, "and the VA is a huge system. They can get clients the help and services they need. Other professions lack that case management training or are not as comfortable with it."The question set that will be administered at the research focus groups includes several questions about one's experience before, during and after deployment, but also asks how and what individuals learned about coping as children, what they wish they had learned and what they now teach their children.

"The information these spouses and parents of Soldiers provide is extremely helpful to us," said Myers, who hosted the first focus groups at his home church, First Baptist Woodway. "We are particularly interested in how faith and church involvement influence this experience."

Research team

Ellor and Myers are working collaboratively with the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas, in this research. All of the members of the research team are mental or physical health care professionals.

In addition to Ellor and Myers, they include: Lt. Col. Sharon Reese, research coordinator and chief nurse scientist, Darnall Army Medical Center; and (all from Baylor) Dr. Sara L. Dolan, assistant professor, department of psychology and neuroscience; Dr. Janet R. Crow, assistant professor, department of family and consumer sciences; and Dr. Suzy H. Weems, project consultant and chair of the department of family and consumer sciences.

The team is in the process of procuring additional funding to further its research.

"Once vetted and analyzed, this data has great potential to be a practical, meaningful resource for the military and also for family and community support networks," Ellor said.

For more information about the mid-July focus groups in Killeen, contact Ellor or call him at (254) 710-4439. Childcare will be provided and gift cards are available to participants to compensate for time and travel costs.
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