Mental health professionals play a critical role in supporting the mental health and well-being of individuals and families, including those who have served or are currently serving in the military. However, it’s important for mental health professionals to understand that military life can be very different from civilian life, and to educate themselves about the unique challenges and experiences that military families face. In this article, we will explore how mental health professionals can support military families.

At Garrett Counseling & Brave Play, we seek to give counselors a birds eye view of how to counsel and understand the underpinning of military personnel and their families. In order to counsel this unique population counselors must be knowledgeable about military culture in a culturally competent manner (Cole, 2014). Military personnel and their families often face unique circumstances and stressors that present distinctive challenges affecting their everyday lives as well as the lives of family members (Cole, 2014). Those who have no experience with the military population often do not understand its language, hierarchy, sense of rules and regulations, self-expectations and self-sacrifice (Cole, 2014). By helping mental health professionals increase their knowledge and awareness of this culture, counselors can explore both the visible (surface culture) and invisible (shallow culture or deep culture) (Cole, 2014). Surface-level aspects being the language, hierarchy, sense of rules and regulations and progressively exploring the more emotionally intense shallow and deep aspects of military culture consisting of self-expectations and self-sacrifice (Cole, 2014).

Now, let’s discuss how mental health professionals can support military families:

Become Familiar With Military Terminology & Lingo

The military has its own culture, with unique customs, practices, and language. In addition, each branch of military services consist of its own set of terms and acronyms that relate to job title, position, location, services, time and resources for military service members and their families (Cole, 2014). For example, military families may use terms like “PCS” (Permanent Change of Station) or “DEERS” (Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System) that may be unfamiliar to those outside the military community. Understanding these terms and their meanings can help mental health professionals communicate more effectively with their clients, as well as build rapport and trust. Licensed Professional Counselor, Rashada Smith reflected on a client asking her if she could utilize the latrine: “I answered, ‘down the hall to the right,’ without hesitation. When the client returned, she shared that she was relieved that she did not have to explain what that was. I honestly did not even realize that we were using a different language because ‘latrine’ is such a commonly used word in military life.” This simple shared experience is an instant rapport builder.

Counselor Salintha’s Military Terms to Know

Counselor Salintha Washington, M.A., ALC, NCC (under the supervision of Leah Simmons, MS, LPC-S, RPT-S) shares these important terms for mental health professionals to know:

  • Hierarchy: This authoritarian structure of rank and order is rigid in the military, with service members expected to show respect for and compliance to their superiors (Cole, 2014).
  • Rules and Regulations: Military culture embodies a strong sense of clearly defined rules, restrictions, and expectations for military service members and their families. For example, if a child is misbehaving in school or if the family is experiencing financial difficulties, the service member’s superiors may become involved and failure to abide may result in expulsion from the military (Cole, 2014).
  • Self-Expectations: This volunteer force concept of warrior ethos is prevalent in the military community meaning both military members and their families take a sense of pride in their ability to overcome challenges. A culture that promotes the notion of strength and emotional control, not appearing weak especially in regard to mental health (Cole, 2014).
  • Self-Sacrifice: Military family members face numerous deployments, relocations, and separations as a constant reality (Cole, 2014).

Become Educated On Challenges Military Families Face

In addition to language, mental health professionals should also educate themselves about the challenges that military families face. This may involve learning about the military lifestyle, including the unique demands and stressors that come with military service, as well as the resources available to support military families. For example, military families may experience frequent moves, deployments, and separations from loved ones. These experiences can be stressful and traumatic, and they can take a toll on mental health and well-being. Military families may also face unique challenges related to military culture and the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Mental health professionals can also benefit from understanding the unique strengths and resilience of military families, such as their ability to adapt to new environments and support each other through difficult times. By becoming educated about military life and culture, mental health professionals can provide more effective and culturally sensitive care to military families.

Counselor Salintha’s Tips for Working with Military Families

Counselor Salintha Washington, M.A., ALC, NCC (under the supervision of Leah Simmons, MS, LPC-S, RPT-S) offers these tips for mental health professionals working with military families:

  • Self-examine and explore their own perceptions and experiences related to the military to become aware of any biases or preconceptions that may affect their work with military, military-connected clients, and their families (Cole, 2014; Prosek et al, 2018).
  • Become multiculturally knowledgeable and competent to promote professional development focusing on culturally relevant interventions for working with the military and their family members (Cole, 2014).
  • Learn more about the nature of military culture by partnering with a military organization or attending an event to experience the rituals and to hear the language associated with military culture (Cole, 2014).
  • Review the Competencies for Counseling Military Populations (CCMP). It offers counselors a framework of foundational principles and practice for working with military-connected clients (Prosek, Burgin, Atkins, Wehrman, Fenell, Carter, & Green, 2018. P. 88). Military-connected clients represent all military populations including active duty, reserve components, national guard, veterans, retirees, and military families. This resource can be used in clinical and ethical decision-making processes, training, and supervision purposes. “The intention of the CCMP is to provide a research-based set of guidelines that represent military considerations through the lens of a counselor professional identity: a strength-based philosophy grounded in principles of empowerment, wellness, prevention, and development” (Prosek et al., 2018, p. 88).

Overall, it is essential for mental health professionals to educate themselves about military life and culture in order to provide effective, compassionate care to military families. By becoming familiar with military terminology and understanding the challenges and strengths of military families, mental health professionals can better support their clients and help them navigate the unique stressors of military life.

Are you a mental health professional looking for continuing education to further develop your competence in working with military families? Below are two trainings we recommend, both provided by the American Counseling Association (both can be purchased here):

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This article was written by Salintha Washington, M.A., ALC, NCC (under the supervision of Leah Simmons, MS, LPC-S, RPT-S) and Dr. Ashley Garrett, PhD, LPC-S, RPT-S, ACS – mental health professionals at Garrett Counseling in Huntsville, AL.


Cole, R. F. (2014). Understanding military culture: A guide for professional school counselors. Professional Counselor, 4(5), 497-504.

Prosek, E. A., Burgin, E. E., Atkins, K. M., Wehrman, J. D., Fenell, D. L., Carter, C. H. E. Y. E. N. N. E., & Green, L. (2018). Competencies for counseling military populations. Journal of Military and Government Counseling, 6(2), 87-99.

Stebnicki, M.A. (2020) Clinical military counseling: Guidelines for practice