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By: Jenny Rea, Ph.D.

“Only recently has the military service been recognized as a cultural identity that can impact treatment in mental health services” (Ormeno et al., 2020).

Culture is defined as “the shared characteristics of a group of people, which encompasses place of birth, religion, language, cuisine, social behaviors, art, literature, and music” (National Geographic, 2022). Some cultures are widespread and have a large number of people who associate themselves with those particular values, beliefs, and origins. Others are relatively small, with only a small number of people who associate themselves with that culture. Culture is not, however, defined by its size – no matter how big or small, young or old, changed or stayed the same, “every culture can teach us about ourselves, others, and the global community” (National Geographic, 2022). 

Culture is likely a word you have heard before – but what about cultural identity?

People often use their culture to relate to the world around them. They behave and communicate like other members of the group to stay connected. This provides “stagnant and [a] stable frame of reference to generate meaning” (Bajracharya, 2018). According to Cultural Identity Theory (CIT; developed by Jane Collier and Milt Thomas), “cultural identity is self-identification, a sense of belonging to a group that reaffirms itself.” The group, as a whole, gets a new identity for sharing common ideas as well as a feeling of belongingness or a feeling of “we” is developed.

One’s cultural identity depends upon various factors, such as race, gender, sex, sexuality, nationality, social structures, political beliefs, geographic location, and more. CIT shows why a person is the way he/she/they is/are. It also shows why a person acts and behaves the way he/she/they does/do. One person can belong to many cultural groups simultaneously. 

What does this mean for military families?

A recent article titled, Special Concerns in Military Families, the authors Ormeno and colleagues (2020), summarize literature published in the past six years “addressing common features and health needs of military families with the goal of improving military cultural competence”. 

The military carries its own culture as evidenced by its particular traditions, beliefs, language, and set of guiding principles. Military culture affects how service members and their families access healthcare services and related resources. This is likely a result of frequent permanent change of duty stations (PCS). Healthcare providers, as well as military family service providers who incorporate military cultural competence may help military families avoid additional barriers to care (Ormeno et al., 2020).

Multiple programs are in place that use a culturally competent approach (e.g., Families Overcoming Under Stress; FOCUS) to support military families and have shown promise in their ability to provide resources. However, fewer than half of military families reported services and agencies to be helpful and more research is needed to determine how supports, resources, and interventions could be enhanced or changed to be more beneficial for families (Ormeno et al., 2020).

What can you do today to better support military families?

Cultural identity changes with time and experiences. The military culture becomes a part of an individual’s self-concept and how each individual (and family) defines their lifestyle as a whole. Therefore, professionals and educators must consider the various transitions military families experience as they will likely affect each family’s cultural identity. Professionals and educators who serve military families may benefit from training on military lifestyles, terminologies, and the specific hardships encountered by military families. They may also consider “treating the whole family as part of the military and their health as valued as well as pivotal to the military mission” (Ormeno et al., 2020).


Bajracharya, S. (2018, January 7). Cultural Identity Theory. Retrieved from Cultural Identity Theory – Businesstopia

  1. National Geographic. (2022). Cultural Identity. Retrieved from Cultural Identity | National Geographic Society
  2. Ormeno, M. D., Roh, Y., Heller, M., Shields, E., Flores-Carrera, A., Greve, M., … & Onasanya, N. (2020). Special concerns in military families. Current Psychiatry Reports, 22(12), 1-7. 

Writers Biography

Jenny Rea, Ph.D., is a military spouse and mom of four kiddos under six years. Jenny consults with OneOp and is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Human Services and Director of the Certificate in Military Families at the University of Arizona.






Photo source: IStock