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Strengthening Bridges Project Serves Veterans and Military Families

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Karla Turner

Student Writer

News  •
Veterans and Families

Although the majority of veterans and military service members are parents, they often struggle to find specialized psychological support for themselves, much less their children.

A new initiative aims to change that. The Strengthening Bridges Project (Bridges), a collaboration between the Sturm Family Foundation and the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP), launched in 2022, a time that saw escalating need. Many military families were still contending with the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as with developments in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

The need for services directed at military families and their children is especially acute. “Early childhood mental health is seldom an area of competence among clinicians serving these families,” says Katy Barrs, associate clinical professor at GSPP and clinical director of the school’s Sturm Center, a behavioral health center for veterans, service members and their families.

Stigma is a barrier experienced by many people needing mental health support. For those trained to hide or deny weakness as a matter of duty, treatment can be even more elusive. The culture associated with military service is as unique as the psychological impacts from that service, so the therapeutic approach must be tailored to those experiences.

Too often, Barr says, many well-intentioned providers who accept military clients lack training in how to serve their needs and don’t understand how traditional strategies may be contraindicated. Veterans and service members need proficient providers who understand the physical, emotional and environmental factors at work in their lives. The right chemistry of care can eliminate barriers to access and reduce premature exits from psychotherapy.

While Bridges was designed as a resource for veterans and military families, it was also structured to provide doctoral psychology students the opportunity to put culturally competent, developmentally-informed, evidence-based psychotherapy and assessment into practice. Bridges also unites two related but, so far, independent entities at GSPP: the Sturm Center and the Caring for You and Baby (CUB) Clinic, which has provided mental health services for expecting caregivers and those with young children since 2018.

“Veterans and service members have long received services from both clinics,” says John Holmberg, a research associate professor at GSPP and interim director of the CUB Clinic. “But until the Strengthening Bridges Project, these integrated services were not streamlined or interwoven.”

Bridges aims to integrate services and outreach, while training a new generation of psychologists to address the significant trauma of this specialized population. Families may reach out for a variety of reasons, from postpartum depression to feelings associated with military discharge. “The braided training is ideal for future military psychologists,” Holmberg says.

Objectives within the Bridges initiative focus on:

  • cross-training student clinicians from the two clinics to amplify specific competencies in working with veteran and military families, enhancing their compassion, resilience and self-care skills
  • adding novel approaches to psychological services such as music therapy and therapy focused on supporting fathers
  • developing strategies for real-time assessment and data-driven feedback about changes in well-being among families and in individuals
  • expanding ways to identify and reach underserved military and veteran families in Denver

Given the sense of unity that characterizes military culture, many of the GSPP students pursuing this specialized training are veterans. Their dedication to making a difference in their community is supported by such resources as the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Funding, endowed by DU and GSPP.

“Military and veteran families are extremely resilient, and this project strives to help military families to continue to build on their strengths and resiliency,” Holmberg says.