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Program Employs Technology to Aid Families

By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2011 – A Navy program that’s been building resilience in service members and their families since 2008 is turning to technology to expand its worldwide reach, the program’s director said today.

Project FOCUS, or Families OverComing Under Stress, bolsters communication and coping skills among families impacted by deployments and the visible and invisible wounds of war, explained Kirsten Woodward, also the director of the family programs division for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Navy officials created the program after observing the growing effects of wartime stress on family members’ psychological health. “The combat deployments, both in length and intensity, and high operational stress have definitely shown there’s stress on the families,” Woodward said. “It’s a different norm for this generation of families and children, and with unknowns comes stress.”

Officials designed the program to address the family as a whole, taking into account the community they live in and the available military support systems, she explained. As a result, it comprises three parts: an inner and outer tier and a bull’s-eye.

The outer tier provides information and awareness to communities in which military families live and work, she said, while the inner tier educates and builds coping skills among service members and their families. The intervention piece features families needing extra care undergoing eight to 10 individual training sessions aimed at helping them work through issues.

The program was instituted two years ago with seven sites and since has expanded to 23 sites militarywide, Woodward said. Each site, she said, includes three to five experts -- including psychologists, social workers and therapists -- as well as a site director, and the sites are collocated on bases and in family-friendly environments such as family service centers or chaplains’ offices.

Now, officials are hoping to expand their reach even further through a host of online tools, Woodward said, citing several examples.

In an online virtual environment called FOCUS World, she said, family members create an avatar likeness and gain communication and coping skills while navigating through their “home.” They might encounter a furnace, for instance, that’s flaming in a color that correlates to a stress thermometer. A FOCUS guide then steers them to resources and tools to help deal with the specific stressor. The program, she added, adapts to the developmental needs of children of all ages.

Because of the program’s live and virtual modes, deployed service members can take part at the same time as their spouse and children, Woodward noted.

“It’s great for remote families, for families during separations, or for those families who aren’t feeling ready for face to face work,” she said.

The program, Woodward said, also is turning to technology to address the needs of wounded warriors and their families, particularly those who aren’t located near an installation.

“These families are not only dealing with physical and mental challenges,” she said, “but the adaptation to a ‘new normal,’ a new way of functioning as a family.”

Woodward said families participate in this customized program, called Wounded Warrior FOCUS Care, on the telephone or on their computer via Skype. If the family doesn’t have a camera on their computer, she said, officials will ship one to them.

Over the course of four sessions, Woodward said, wounded warriors and their families learn skills such as emotional regulation, adaptive coping responses, communication processes, how to adjust to the family’s “new normal,” and how to reframe situations.

Woodward cited an example of a family who was able to reframe a painful moment into something positive. A service member wounded in combat had shrapnel pieces throughout his body, many of which couldn’t be surgically removed and were visible. His 6- and 10-year-old were scared to see him in the hospital, so he and his wife decided to reframe the situation.

Woodward said the service member adopted the name “Shrapnelman” -- since his kids saw him as a hero -- and even wore a cape when they came to see him.

“It completely allowed the children to see dad in that happy, positive light,” she said.

Other new FOCUS resources include a program adaptation for parents with young children, birth to age 3, Woodward noted.

FOCUS initially was created to address children ages 4 and up, Woodward said. But officials later noted a large percentage of military families are young and have young children. Babies and toddlers also are affected by deployments and long separations, she added.

Finally, she said, officials have launched an adaption of the program for couples who may have a baby on the way or are just dating or newly married.

As they develop new resources, Woodward said they’ll be tracking their effectiveness. Program officials, she said, conduct a web-based family assessment at program entry, post intervention and again at intervals over a six-month period.

The program’s annual report for fiscal 2011 indicated FOCUS’ resounding success, Woodward noted. Both the service members and civilian parents, she said, showed significant reductions in depression and anxiety, and children showed a significant reduction in parent-reported difficulties and in pro-social behavior, which includes helping others, sharing and caring. The report also indicated the family as a whole functioned better.

Assessments are vital to the program’s continued success, Woodward noted.

“I want to make sure we are measuring the quality improvement that we’re doing for our families,” she said, “so if we’re not improving their lives, we need to tweak it and make it better.”


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