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Why veterans shy away from sharing combat experiences

A new study has found that veterans tend to disclose wartime information on a strict need-to-know basis and that therapists treating combat veterans when they return home can improve counseling strategies by seeking to understand privacy rules formed by military culture.

“Like many other marginalized groups, veterans have certain rules that arise from military culture for how they share private information about their experiences.”

When veterans return home, they often are faced with questions about what they experienced overseas. However, choosing to disclose this information can be complicated, because their responses can affect how people view them and their personal relationships.

“Like many other marginalized groups, veterans have certain rules that arise from military culture for how they share private information about their experiences,” says Douglas Wilbur, a retired major in the US Army and a doctoral student in the Missouri School of Journalism who studies the link between strategic communication and military culture.

“For therapists and other professionals to help veteran clients, they first have to understand why veterans disclose or withhold information from certain groups of people,” Wilbur says.

Past research shows that disclosure of traumatic wartime events can have mental health benefits for veterans seeking help. However, many face obstacles that can make disclosure difficult, including trauma-induced anxiety that may arise from the act of disclosure and national security laws that prohibit the sharing of certain information.

Veterans debating sharing wartime events also might face moral injury, which is when a veteran has done something in combat that directly violates his or her own morals.

“Western moral values typically abhor killing,” Wilbur says. “When a soldier comes home, they might avoid discussing the more violent aspects of their service for fear of being judged by civilians. This puts our veterans in a difficult, often isolating frame of mind.”

After combat, veterans need help getting back to ‘normal’

Through in-depth interviews with veterans from varying wars and conflicts, Wilbur found that the veterans operated on a need-to-know basis when facing questions about their service and that they were more likely to have fewer boundaries with immediate family, close friends, and other veterans.

One veteran explained that his wife needed to know his experiences so that she understood why he sometimes gets into a bad mood for no apparent reason. Learning these privacy rules is a crucial first step in coming up with better counseling strategies.

“While a therapist may not share the same experiences as a veteran, they can create a healing space for veterans if they emphasize that they will not be judged for what information they reveal,” Wilbur says. “Counselors should also consider outlining what privacy rules they will follow before disclosure and work to maintain the trust they build with their client over time.”

The findings will appear in Psychology of Language and Communication.

Source: University of Missouri

DOI: 10.2478/plc-2018-0004

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