On Friday, April 25th, Dr. Alex Bierman spoke at the 5th annual William Form lecture. Dr. Bierman is currently an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Calgary and is an alumnus of the University of Maryland sociology department. His talk was titled “The Threat of War and Psychological Distress among Civilians Working in Iraq and Afghanistan.” This talk presented findings from a recent publication of the same name that appeared in Social Psychology Quarterly, co-written with Ryan Kelty (who is also an alumnus of UMD sociology). The talk focused on the nonlinear role of mastery in impacting the experience of distress by Department of Army Civilians (DACs) while deployed overseas in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (OIF and OEF).
Bierman makes the case that DACs are an understudied yet important group of individuals. While DACs typically are not involved directly in combat actions, the risks they face overseas are no less dangerous than their service member counterparts. Department of Army civilians, like their service member counterparts, face risks in the form of improvised explosive devices (IEDs or roadside bombs) and indirect fire from RPG, mortar, IRAM, or other high explosive device attacks. The nature of these attacks is random and indiscriminate. Therefore, mental distress caused by an ever present threat is likely to be experienced by DACs and service members alike.
Bierman and Kelty performed a quantitative analysis of a web-based survey provided to logistic units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This analysis sought to determine the effect of mastery and threat on psychological distress. Distress is measured both in its internal and external forms as symptoms similar to depression and anger respectively. Mastery is measured by the Pearlin and Schooler (1978) index which focuses on an individual’s control over their life. Lastly, threat is measured by a single question which measures the frequency with which a respondent felt their life was threatened. It is possible that a more sophisticated measure of threat, such as one including the actual frequency of attacks, success rates, injury rates, etc. would add a stronger understanding, Bierman stated that previous research supports the validity and utility of a one item measure.
Now with the stage set, what interesting findings were presented? Ultimately Bierman stressed that mastery has a nonlinear relationship with distress. Generally findings suggest that as mastery increases, internalized distress decreases. However, at high levels of mastery, distress increases slightly. Individuals at high levels of mastery still experience lower levels of distress than those at low levels of masters, however there is a point at which mastery becomes slightly detrimental. Bierman continued on to show that the relationship between mastery and distress was further complicated by threat. As threat increased, mastery was found to diminish, thus increasing the negative experience of distress. Lastly, Bierman presented findings from an analysis of the moderating effect of mastery on distress; mastery diminishes the effect of threat on distress differentially at varying levels of mastery.
Ultimately, Bierman leaves us with the complex relationship between threat, mastery, and the end result of distress. Threat diminishes resources which protect against distress. Mastery prevents the negative effects of threat on distress, but at high levels is slightly detrimental. Bierman, in his publication, acknowledges the limitation of a cross sectional analysis and notes the need for longitudinal data. Bierman ended his presentation by hinting some future research of this same vein. For those whose support is vital to the success of the military mission, DACs deserve our current and future attention.