Military Psychologist Overview

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated July 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Many military personnel come back from war and have a difficult time re-adjusting to civilian life. Between the traumatic things they might have seen and the extended time away from their families, it can be a lot for one person to handle. Even being at war for a short time is sometimes enough to cause emotional turmoil. In many cases, a clinical military psychologist can help soldiers or veterans heal from trauma and re-adjust to life at home. There are millions of people who have been involved with the military, and many others will follow in their footsteps. For this reason, military psychologists tend to be in high demand. Below, we’ll discuss military psychologists, the training required to become a military psychologist, and some of the benefits of this unique psychology career.

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Interested in becoming a military psychologist?

What is military psychology?

Military psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with military personnel and their families.

Psychologists who specialize in military matters are typically responsible for assessing, diagnosing, and treating their patients—much like any other psychologist does. However, they are trained to help people with concerns that specifically relate to the military.

It’s not only after soldiers come back from war that a military psychologist can become an important asset. Rather, they can be essential during many life stages of military personnel. In the beginning, military psychologists can evaluate recruits to help those in the armed forces select the right people for the job. Military psychologists can also help soldiers cope while they're still away from home and give them strategies for acclimating smoothly back into civilian life upon their return.

Some military veterans who experience mental health concerns in the transition to civilian life choose to become military psychologists themselves. Some service members returning home experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Surveys of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found rates of PTSD between 13.5% and 30%. Although it’s a prevalent disorder, psychotherapy has been shown to be effective for PTSD, and different forms of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are considered “first-line treatments.”

In the U.S., each branch of the military has designated military psychologists to assist those in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Air Force. While the idea of military psychology is not new, its importance has grown in recent years. Therefore, the field of military psychology may grow in the coming years.

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How to become a military psychologist

In order to become a military psychologist, you need to have a PhD or PsyD in psychology, preferably with a specialization in military psychology. Some military psychologists are officers in the armed forces themselves, while others are civilians working as psychologists.

One of the differences in the training for a military psychologist and that of another psychological discipline is that you can choose to pursue a degree at Uniformed Services University (USU) rather than through a traditional college. If you choose to pursue your psychology degree at USU, you may have your tuition and on-campus living expenses paid for by the military while you earn your degree. 

Another possible way to get part of your psychology tuition paid for is through the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). The HPSP program is typically for students already in a PhD or PsyD program at a civilian university. After they finish their studies and internship, they are usually required to serve a year in the military for every year of scholarship.

How military psychologists help 

Military psychologists assess and treat their patients for a variety of different concerns and disorders. Conditions that military psychologists typically treat include:

  • Grief
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation*
  • Anger management
  • Stress management
  • A family's adjustments to a service member going away

Military psychologists can play key roles at each stage of a person’s military career. For example, an Army psychologist may meet with a recruit before the person is even permitted to begin their military career to determine whether the recruit is stable enough to handle the kind of life that they are about to take on.

Military psychologists can also help during a soldier's deployment. They may help them with anxiety experienced as a result of traveling to a foreign country, the stress of combat, and depression due to missing significant family events, such as birthdays, holidays, school plays, and more.

Upon a soldier's return home, they may experience depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A military psychologist can offer different means of treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication. Always consult a doctor before starting or stopping a new medication.

Other ways in which military psychologists help

Military psychologists can help the military in other ways aside from treating patients. Some conduct research or perform analyses on the missions that soldiers carry out. Military psychologists may study methods of peacekeeping and humanitarianism to help create procedures that can save lives.

Military psychologists may also study what is known as tactical military psychology. Tactical psychology is the study of the tactics that soldiers use during combat. Specifically, the focus is typically on what the soldiers do that causes an enemy to freeze up or partake in any other activity that reduces the enemy's desire or ability to attack.

Another area in which military psychologists can be useful is in the field of occupational psychology. Military psychologists can assist the military in achieving more diversity while also reducing the instances of racial or sexual discrimination and assault. For instance, military psychologists can help support women in the military to lead meaningful careers in sometimes-hostile military workplaces.

In furtherance of promoting occupational psychology, military psychologists can also assist with rehabilitating soldiers who may be experiencing an addiction, as well as those who may have been wounded in battle. 

The perks of being a military psychologist

Military psychologists earn perks that are similar to those who enlist in the military, such as sign-on bonuses and potentially paid tuition, room, and board. However, there may be some caveats to these benefits. For instance, the U.S. Navy may require students to provide three years of active service in exchange for having their tuition paid, plus a $2,000 monthly stipend for living expenses.

The Navy also typically requires students to complete what is called "Officer Development School" while they are on break from their normal studies. They usually do this while completing their Ph.D. Certain scholarships are also available to those who are pursuing a career in the military.

Once military psychologists have earned their degrees and have a job in the field, their salaries can vary widely. As they gain more experience in the workforce, their pay can rise.

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Interested in becoming a military psychologist?

Online counseling with BetterHelp

If you believe that you or someone you know is in need of the assistance of a military psychologist or mental health counselor, the mental health professionals at BetterHelp may be able to help. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 therapists, so you can be matched with a therapist who has experience with military personnel and veterans if you prefer. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist by phone, live chat, or videoconferencing, in addition to using in-app messaging any time in between sessions.

Online psychological counseling

Online therapy can be helpful for managing a variety of mental health concerns. In a systematic review and meta-analysis, researchers found that internet-based interventions (IBI) reduced veterans’ symptoms of PTSD. One of the focus groups of the study consisted of veterans who had comorbid conditions alongside their PTSD, and the analysis showed reductions in other symptoms like anxiety and depression.

Therapist reviews

“Erin is the best counselor I've ever had the pleasure of working with. She works with me on things I've turned over and over in my head and reframes them so that they seem much less daunting. She understands PTSD and trauma better than anyone I've spoken to and is really helping me unpack some of it. Thank you, Erin!”

“I was very reluctant to try counseling after a negative experience many years ago. However, after experiencing the passing of various family (My husband, sister and recently my Mom) within a very short period of time, I had no choice but to seek out help to cope. Elizabeth made me feel at ease right away, despite my initial reluctance. Coming from a military family myself, she understood and related to me in a way that gave me the right amount of compassion and gentle focus that makes me safe and heard. She has also given a straightforward plan of action that is successfully helping me deal with my family crisis.”

Takeaway

Military psychologists provide special services to active members of the military as well as veterans. Military psychologists have training in the unique challenges that service members face both during deployment and after they return home. If you are facing challenges with your mental health and think they may be related to active duty or military involvement, you don’t have to face them alone. 

If you don’t feel comfortable going to a psychologist’s office, you might consider online therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a psychologist or therapist who has experience in military-specific challenges or any other specific concerns you’re facing. Take the first step to getting help and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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