Professional News
Psychiatric Volunteer Effort Aids Reservists and Families
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 7 page 8-8

Remember the old military recruitment slogan, "Uncle Sam Wants You!"?

Well, Uncle Sam may not want you, but SOFAR does, SOFAR co-director Kenneth Reich, Ed.D., said at the winter meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City.

SOFAR, Reich explained, stands for Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists. It provides free psychological care to the families of soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve and U.S. National Guard and is looking for psychiatrists and mental health professionals to volunteer some of their time and professional skills to the program.

Reich, who is president of the Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England in Cambridge, Mass., came up with the SOFAR concept four years ago. He believed that the families of Reserve and National Guard soldiers deserve pro bono psychological help, since the mental health services provided them by the military are more limited than what the military offers to the families of enlisted soldiers.

Reich explained that a command sergeant major of the 94th Regional Readiness Command of the New England Reserves vetted his SOFAR proposal with the military. It took two-and-a-half years to get it approved because of legal complications. Also, a law firm helped incorporate SOFAR as a nonprofit organization, dealt with liability issues faced by psychotherapists who would work as SOFAR volunteers, and provided patient-consent forms. The program finally got under way about 18 months ago.

Someone in the military predicted that SOFAR would be overwhelmed with patients. "But there was not a call for four months," Reich emphasized. "What we finally realized about a year ago was not to wait for calls, but to connect with the wives heading up the [Reserve and Guard] family-readiness groups. We talked with them and then, very slowly, the phone started to ring."

But even then, it was obvious that family members were more comfortable with SOFAR volunteers coming to them. So SOFAR started sending out teams of five to seven psychotherapists to family-readiness group meetings. Each team member would then work on a one-to-one basis with family members or devote his or her time and skills to a small group of family members.

SOFAR includes some 70 volunteers—psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatric nurses—who provide psychological assistance to the families of Reserve and Guard soldiers throughout New England. As of July 2006, SOFAR volunteers had assisted some 2,000 individuals, Reich said.

Reich would now like to see the program become national. Volunteers can donate as much or as little time as they want, he stressed. Although their volunteers are psychoanalytically or psychodynamically trained, "we hope that they will use the skill sets that will be most helpful to the family members," he said.

Reich also knows of several programs in California and Oregon that are similar to SOFAR, although they focus on helping Reserve and National Guard soldiers rather than the soldiers' families. He is interested in joining forces with these programs and any other programs in the United States that have missions similar to that of SOFAR.

No studies have yet documented the extent of mental health problems of Reserve or National Guard family members, Reich acknowledged. Yet he knows from his SOFAR work that when Reserve and National Guard soldiers are called to active duty, their families often experience anxiety, depression, or anger. And if such negative emotions are not treated, he said, they can lead to even more pernicious consequences such as divorce, domestic violence, infidelity, substance abuse, or suicide.

"Trauma happens in isolation, but healing occurs in connection," he concluded. "We at SOFAR provide such connection."

More information about SOFAR is posted at<www.sofarusa.org>.

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