Karolina Przegienda, M.A. ‘15, Psy.D. ‘18, knew at a young age she wanted to help people while being a soldier. A Chicago graduate of the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology program, with an emphasis in Military Clinical Psychology, Przegienda shares how her work as an active-duty military psychologist is helping break the stigma surrounding mental health in the military.
I was born in Poland and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, with my family when I was 2 years old. I was living in New York when the events of 9/11 devastated the world. I was only 13 years old at the time. In that time after 9/11, I realized I wanted to do something in the world to make a difference. For a while, I wanted to become a police psychologist. As I learned more about the profession, I learned that there are opportunities for psychologists in the military. That was it for me—I knew I had found my goal in life.
After finishing my undergraduate and master’s degree in forensic psychology, I searched for a program that would combine my love for the military and psychology. Adler University’s Psy.D. program with an emphasis in military clinical psychology was the right path for me.
Embracing Military Traditions through Psychology
During my second year at Adler University, I commissioned in the U.S. Army under the Health Professions Scholarship Program. This scholarship afforded me the opportunity to focus on my studies while preparing for an active-duty internship. I was able to complete my clinical psychology internship and residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. Today, I am the Behavioral Health Officer for the 3rd Calvary Regiment stationed in Fort Hood, Texas.
My emphasis in military psychology at Adler University helped me begin laying down the foundation for the military mindset, which is a different experience than private practice or academia. Military psychology is about maintaining the readiness of the force while helping people heal from wounds that civilians might never experience.
The curriculum was directed towards ethics, leadership, assessment, and trauma which helped me begin thinking in unconventional ways. My professors at Adler University also had prior military service experience from each branch. That experience was invaluable as it gave me the opportunity to learn from different perspectives.
Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in the Military
One of the aspects of the military that I wish more civilians knew about was the number of services that the military has in place for service members to help them work through their mental health. We offer individual and group therapy with a wide range of topics covered, including intensive outpatient therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and general life skills; partial hospitalization inpatient; inpatient hospitalization; substance abuse treatment; inpatient rehabilitation for substances; child and family therapy; and more. All these services exist free of charge for our service members so that they may return to full duty.
The military has come a long way in recognizing the stigma surrounding mental health. While the stigma still exists, there is a stark comparison of mind frames from those senior leaders that joined in the early 2000’s to now. It’s my job as a behavioral health officer to bridge the generational gap between those senior leaders and their ideas of mental health.
While all these services are in place, there is room for improvement in the services offered. It is crucial that there is support for the mental health of active-duty service members and veterans. The lack of available quality mental health care is compounded by the fact that active-duty and veterans are too often reluctant and overtly deterred from seeking mental health care because of shame, stigma, and adverse career impact. For those who do seek help, a variety of logistical, cultural, and professional barriers may interfere with care access and delivery.
Setting Expectations for a Healthier Military
Special efforts must be made to share mental health information and increase access to services that overcome the stigma and guilt that is associated with mental health. Mental health disorders are not tangible and often have no visible physical signs or diagnostic tests by which they can be confirmed.
As I look towards the future in working with the military, I have noticed the need for evidence-based interventions in multiple and diverse settings, including in basic training, on the battlefield, following injury, and upon and after discharge. Not only does the military need to bridge the gap in mental health care for active members, but also in Veterans Affairs settings for family members of military personnel. Ignoring the needs of these populations is both unfair, given their great sacrifices, and unwise, as family support is critical for optimal adjustment of returning veterans.
I hope future career advancements with the Army will allow me to further my work to improve the mental health of our active-duty soldiers.