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Penn center to help Army with stress

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by Stacey Burling
July 31, 2009

Army sergeants may have a tough-guy image, but University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman thinks they're in a perfect position to teach their fellow soldiers how to better handle emotions.

That is why sergeants - the line teachers of the Army - will be the first to receive resiliency training when a new project designed to revamp the Army's approach to mental health rolls out next month. Fifty noncommissioned officers will go to Penn's campus for a week of training by staff of the Positive Psychology Center, which Seligman directs. After that, 300 will arrive in November and December. They will take what they've learned about preventing psychological problems and living more fulfilling lives back to their troops, Seligman said.

Worried about rising suicide rates and thousands of soldiers with posttraumatic stress disorder, the Army is launching the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program to help 1.1 million soldiers and their families cope more effectively with the stress of military life and combat.

"They're not coming into the service with the coping skills they need," said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff. "That's how the resilience program was born."

The goal is to reduce problems and increase the number of people who improve and grow personally after surviving trauma, undergoing what psychologists call posttraumatic growth. Seligman has long argued that psychologists should think not only about what makes people miserable but also about what makes them happy and successful.

"Having an Army that's just as psychologically fit as physically fit will make for a much more effective Army of the future," he said.

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a doctor who has a Ph.D. in nutrition and biochemistry, will direct the initiative. She knows something about stress. During the Persian Gulf War, she was in a helicopter that was shot down in late February 1991. Iraqi forces held her captive for more than a week before repatriating her in early March.

Cornum said yesterday that she never questioned her ability to survive. "I had absolute confidence that I would do well and that I would be emotionally fine when I got back," she said. And, she said, the experience even made her a better person. But she realizes that not everyone was "brought up to look at things that were difficult as challenges. . . . The time to teach that is not when they're in a prison in Baghdad."

The Army, she said, historically has done a much better job of teaching physical fitness and technical skills than of addressing emotions. Now that soldiers face repeated conflict, they need more help.

"We decided it wasn't a good idea to just wait until people had a problem and then try to solve it," Cornum said. She likened mental problems to heart attacks. You can give a patient a bypass afterward, but it's better to head off the attack with healthy food and exercise.

The initiative will cost $100 million over three years. Seligman said Penn would receive about $1 million for its work this year. Contracts have not yet been completed for training in 2010 and beyond. The program will also include periodic assessments of soldiers' mental fitness in four areas: emotional, social, family, and spiritual. Soldiers will fill out a 150-item questionnaire in October and will take it every two years. They will be told confidentially how they did and will be offered classes developed by experts in the four key areas. Classes will also be made available to their family members.

Seligman said he was impressed by the Army's approach. "They are calling on the best civilian science here," he said. "This is a very classy operation they've mounted."

Penn will teach soldiers to think differently about what happens to them. The program, originally developed to teach schoolchildren, will help the noncommissioned officers avoid "catastrophizing," a tendency to imagine and fret about worst-case scenarios. It will also help them play to their strengths and virtues and build better relationships.

For example, Seligman said, they will be taught "active, constructive responding," a technique that helps people draw out detail in a conversation that allows the other speaker to "relive good events."

Cornum said 35 soldiers tried the program in May and gave it rave reviews. They said they had used its lessons immediately at work and at home. "Every single one of them said that," Cornum said of six graduates she questioned at Fort Jackson yesterday. "I was happily amazed."

She said the Army was working with Penn to "militarize the curriculum" so it is better suited to soldiers. "It probably wasn't Braveheart and Band of Brothers," she said of the original curriculum.

Seligman said he was especially pleased that the Army decided to take the program out of its medicine department and put it under education and training.

"Ever since being APA president," he said, referring to the American Psychological Association, "I've been arguing that psychology wants to move out of this pathology model that it's painted itself into."


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