UCLA Program Reduces Anxiety, Depression, PTSD in Military Families

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A UCLA-developed program is improving the lives of military families by helping them cope with multiple deployments and bounce back from challenges, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS) is an 8-week program that has been administered since 2008 under a contract from the Bureau of Navy Medicine and Surgery. The intervention is delivered by specially trained behavioral health professionals at military bases, and teaches the entire family approaches for overcoming misunderstandings, diminishing tensions, handling difficult emotions, and banding together.

“It’s really important to somehow keep the deployed parent salient in the minds of their children, and to incorporate the absent parent into holiday rituals,” said Catherine Mogil, PsyD, a UCLA child psychologist.

Research about the program shows that it really does help families cope. A team of 12 researchers from UCLA, Harvard University, and the military found that the FOCUS program reduced the number of troops, spouses, and children suffering from the most problematic psychological and emotional symptoms by half.

The researchers learned that the program reduces behavior problems in children as well as anxiety, depressive symptoms, and PTSD:

  • Children with behavior problems dropped from 30% to less than 14%, and children with pro-social behavior difficulties dropped from 15% to 9%. 

  • Parents at risk for anxiety and depressive symptoms dropped from 23% to 11%.

  • PTSD symptoms declined significantly both among those deployed and those at home, although civilian parents improved the most: those with PTSD symptoms dropped from 31% to 16%.

Patricia Lester, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, noted that these findings underscore the importance of family-centered services to help families face adversity.

UCLA Program Reduces Anxiety, Depression, PTSD in Military Families
Parents at risk for anxiety and depressive symptoms dropped from 23% to 11%.

Across the US, families of troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Uganda and other hot spots are emailing photos of their holiday feasts to their loved ones overseas — and asking them to respond with pictures of their own holiday celebrations.

The strategy is part of a UCLA-developed program aimed at easing the wear and tear on military families who are grappling with challenges of multiple deployments and combat-related injuries, all of which can stir destructive and difficult-to-control emotions.

"It's really important to somehow keep the deployed parent salient in the minds of their children, and to incorporate the absent parent into holiday rituals," said Catherine Mogil, a UCLA child psychologist.

A new study about that program shows that it really does help improve people's ability to bounce back from challenges. The report will be published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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