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Program helping families weather transitions of military life

Published: 10:58AM May 20th, 2011

Military families do not have to wait for problems to arise before seeking help.

Families Overcoming Under Stress (or FOCUS) is a program for military families that helps them build skills so they can weather the different transitions of military life as best as possible.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is one of 14 installations in the U.S. that has the program, and only one of four that services all branches of the military.

FOCUS was created by the Department of Defense in response to concerns over frequent and longer deployment periods. Its original intent was to generate more supportive services focusing on how to deal with all stages of deployment, but has since then expanded to cover more general aspects of military life including unpredictable work schedules, adjusting to a new duty station and other stresses.

“We’re here to help with the things that just add to the already existing stress of what comes with a military lifestyle,” said Dr. Kimberly Crosby, JBLM FOCUS site director.

The program has been in practice for less than three years, but “is based on over 20 years of research with children and families facing challenges and adversities in many different settings,” according to its website.

All of the staff on JBLM possesses a master’s degree or higher in a mental health related profession.

Their professional background is significant in that it allows them to recognize the need for further attention if issues arise during client sessions, at which time the staff might make a referral to another organization.

“(FOCUS) is not at all marital counseling or therapy, and we want to make it clear that if things start coming up, we would want to make a referral to the appropriate service,” Crosby said.

Clients who go through FOCUS meet with the same staff member for a total of six to eight sessions. An initial consultation enables the family member(s) to voice the areas they would like to work on improving, while giving them a chance to discuss what they hope to get out of the program.

Clients are asked to fill out a brief survey, which in turn gives staff immediate feedback about the areas of strength in the family.

“It’s one way to generate a discussion about what kind of goals you would like as we use the feedback,” Crosby said.

The program is based on five key skills: communication, emotional regulation, problem solving, goal setting and managing deployment reminders. Families are given the opportunity to enhance their resiliency and prepare for future challenges by learning one or several of these skills.

The first skill, communication, teaches families how to be active listeners and respond to one another’s concerns. Parents learn how to address their children’s concerns, particularly when dealing with highly sensitive topics such as deployment.

Emotional regulation is learning how to express emotions in a healthy manner, which results in more effective communication.

“We can teach them when they’re going through hard times how to manage their emotions even though they’re dealing with a lot of stress,” Crosby said.

Problem solving involves learning how to define problems while coming up with effective solutions. It could be something complex such as handling finances to something less complicated like coming up with a daily dinner plan while a spouse is deployed.

Goal setting is where families learn how to set and work towards goals, which are commonly put off during deployment.

“We can teach them the skills to help improve that ability to follow through with their goals despite the stressors around the family,” Crosby said. Lastly, FOCUS participants can learn how to manage deployment reminders. Deployment reminders are events or things that trigger thoughts — often fears — related to combat or deployment. They can affect anyone who has been through a deployment.

“We can teach the whole family different skills to help them recognize reminders, but then also identify how they’re going to get through it,” Crosby said.

All sessions are free of charge, and clients may end participation at any time. They are also welcome to go through the program as often as desired. FOCUS has different sessions geared towards servicemembers, spouses, couples and those with children, so it is not uncommon for a family with children to go through the program first as a couple, then again later as a family.

The main thing Crosby said she wants people to know about FOCUS is that it’s a prevention program.

“We’re not looking for what the problem is,” she said. “We’re looking at what’s going well in the family, holding on to that strength and building on it.”

Which program is right for you?

With an array of programs and services available, it can be difficult to know which one is right for you.

Kimberly Crosby, Ph.D., JBLM FOCUS site director, said sometimes the only way to find the “perfect fit” is by trying different ones. The key, she said, is to try a service before writing it off as an option, or worse, before it’s too late and you’re forced to get help.

“The old way of thinking is once you have a problem, then you seek help,” Crosby said. “We’re trying to help reduce the stigma of seeking help by saying you don’t need to have a problem in order to come get some skills. You can build those skills to help prevent the problem from happening.”

FOCUS is a prevention program designed to enhance resiliency.

Although deemed a confidential program, staff is under legal obligation to report child abuse, domestic violence or self-harm. Everything otherwise discussed remains confidential.

To get started or learn more, call the JBLM FOCUS office at 966-6390 or stop by one of its two locations: Building 2019, Room 220 on JBLM Lewis-Main, or Building 553 on McChord Field.