December 1st, 2016

Program helps military families cope with alcohol abuse

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., are in year three of a four-year grant to study and provide military couples with alcohol and relationship counseling.

“We took an alcohol couple behavioral therapy treatment model that we developed at Rutgers [University] over 25 years with civilian samples and got funding from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to adapt it for military families,” said Elizabeth Epstein, Ph.D., psychologist, and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

She is a principal investigator of the study along with David Smelson, Psy.D., psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The Alcohol Behavioral Couple Therapy for Military study is targeted for active duty or veteran members of all branches of the military, male or female, experiencing risky drinking or alcohol-related problems in their lives, Epstein said.

Couples begin the study with an evaluation before coming in for 15 hour-and-a-half sessions at sites in Worcester or Springfield and conclude with an evaluation session a week after the final counseling session.

Counselors follow a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy protocol, but personalize it to each case, Epstein said. The goals are to get the service member to stop drinking and provide relationship enhancement. That could include “communication skills or doing fun activities to help repair the relationship if it has been damaged by alcohol and helping the spouse, partner or family member be more supportive and understand how hard it is to stop drinking,” she said.

Epstein said military personnel or veterans may deal with a “constellation of symptoms” or a unique set of challenges in their lives. “Those include high levels of PTSD, high levels of depression, high risk of suicidality, high rates of traumatic brain injury, high degree of relationship instability, anxiety and use of other substances like opiates and chronic pain killers,” she said.

“All symptoms may be related and can make each other worse. Alcohol often fuels the whole pot.”

During sessions with couples, counselors assess all symptoms and challenges a service member or veteran might be facing and use modules in the manual to address them, Epstein said.

“The model is really useful for anybody who has a family member, spouse or a dating partner to come in to sessions to get support to learn how to stop drinking, stay sober and learn lots of other skills that they can use to cope with other problems in order to replace drinking with more positive coping skills.”

A positive psychology approach is included in sessions. “We are trying not only to reduce negative behaviors, but also to help the couple work together to develop a new normal,” Epstein said. Counselors help the couple envision what they want in life and for their families. “We help them see the big picture and arrive at a life that is more satisfying for them.”

Study data have not been analyzed yet, but feedback has been positive from couples who have completed the program, Epstein said.

“They’ve been in general very pleased with the things they have learned and with the protocol,” she said. “They’ve understood the connection between alcohol and these other challenges that end up snowballing and they’ve found relationship satisfaction did increase.”

Often, many couples have not talked about any of these issues until coming into the program, Epstein said.

Researchers are recruiting more pairs for the study and have opened the criteria to include family members if a service member or veteran does not have a spouse or romantic partner.

“The idea is to bring in somebody from their environment and help them in real time stop drinking and address all these other challenges,” she said. The program is free, confidential, and couples are paid for participation in the research study.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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