The Sideline Dilemma
by Nancy Cook Christian
While we choose our lives as military spouses and understand the challenges that we face in the constant upheaval of our house and families, many of us do not choose to sit quietly on the sidelines simply supporting our spouses’ careers. We choose to be professionals, academics, parents, and so much more, yet we face an often insurmountable dilemma: how will we succeed in our career when we are living this military life? Even though I have been living through obstacles in my quest for a mental health position, I am still surprised at how daunting it all can be.
Recently, a report from the 2014 Military Officers Association of America noted that the unemployment rate of active duty military wives is at a staggering 90%, far exceeding the unemployment rate of the civilian population. Constant career changes, lack of academic stability and having to restart new employment in a new location with no network have created a workforce that struggles to reach their fullest potential. Even within the military complex, the military spouse is looked at as transient and therefore not hirable.
Within the mental health field, things get even more discouraging. The need for clinical hours, changes in state licensure requirements and the lack of support within the military mental health field create a gloomy picture for the military spouse to achieve his or her professional goals. My reality is one that I share with many of my fellow military spouses. We have many obstacles that impede our ability to work and become licensed in the field. This is the crux of the sideline dilemma.
I went into my master’s program with the desire to help military families deal with the real life stressors of constant deployments and the impact of over a decade of war. This need has grown during my 19 years as a military spouse of a flyer and my 8 years of volunteering at the Joint Base Andrews Fisher House. My experience makes me a natural fit in any military environment since I understand and share the same customs, language and day to day stressors of the population I am willing to serve. I entered into the mental health field with a fire to help my neighbors and family; my school seemed a perfect fit for my mobile lifestyle. It was affordable and accessible. I was able to receive my MA in Professional Counseling. This was wonderful. But then the reality hit: it was not CACREP accredited. This is something I found prohibits me from entering into an LPC position in the VA and many other military medical centers. When I began trying to get an internship, this became an even bigger obstacle - no programs on the base that we were stationed at would even call me back for an interview. Not one. Not once did I ever believe that they would turn down free work from someone that has an intimate knowledge of the population but they did.
Still, I went on and found an amazing internship within the County mental health department and was able to graduate from my program. I was excited to finally join the ranks of professionals in the field instead of being a student. Upon completion of my internship, I quickly started applying for my license and future jobs. Once again, the bureaucratic wheels ran slow and the paper process was stalled with technical glitches that delayed my board exams for nine months. I went into the test nervous yet excited. I passed.
In retrospect, the constant “no’s” and “unqualified” were getting to me and making me and my husband doubt my path towards being a mental health therapist. The bad news is that I find myself unqualified for many jobs due to my degree and lack of CACREP accreditation. I keep telling myself that this is temporary, but the 90% unemployment rate rings like a death knell to my dreams to help the military families that so desperately need to heal.
My one saving grace has been online support and network groups like the Military Spouse Behavioral Health Clinicians (MSBHC) that share their struggles and accomplishments on their Facebook page. Spouses stationed in every corner of the world can help guide and support each other through networking and news within our field. The Founder, Dr. Ingrid Yee, is spearheading many initiatives to help military spouses have better transitions in the mental health professions. Licensure reciprocity, accreditation and supervision assistance are some of the many things that she is lobbying congress to change for our spouses. We see the desperate need for mental health therapists in the military and we want to be in the forefront to heal those wounds.
For me, I share her fight and do not wish to sit quietly while others struggle for those changes. I too, want to help spearhead the changes that are needed both within the profession and for military families. For me, the stress comes from internal as well as external sources: I see the suicide and divorce rates skyrocket within my ranks and I am even more convinced that I’m on the right path. Even if the sidelines have a huge trench in front of me, I know I and my fellow spouses will keep trudging up that hill towards our dreams.