Social workers in the health and mental health fields serve a diverse population, and are frequently trained to work with a wide spectrum of patients as clients, including a variety of age groups, as well as individuals from a range of professional, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds. In the wake of increased military deployment, professional social work programs have been increasingly focused on training social workers to serve a very specific population – military service members and veterans – in the hopes of increasing professional knowledge and sensitivity.
Continued conflicts in the Middle East and surrounding areas have presented new challenges in terms of the percentage of wounded veterans in the United States, as well as the number of families affected by repeated deployments. Social workers who work in the mental health and medical fields are particularly well suited to address these challenges, as they help soldiers and their families to receive specialized care and access to necessary resources.
Explore five areas where clinical social workers provide support to military veterans and their families:
Improvements in medical technology and advances in battlefield armor have resulted in an increased survival rate for combat veterans, with over 90% of soldiers surviving injuries incurred in combat. When these veterans return home, they may have additional needs and require assistance navigating the health care and social service systems.
A case manager serves as a liaison between the military veteran and the service provider, such as the Veteran’s Administration. The case management may be short-term – such as in times of crisis – or long-term, for high-risk patients or those who are found to have extensive medical or psychological issues.
Case managers typically meet with the patient to determine what support systems are already in place and what services are needed. They may create a course of action, provide counseling, coordinate necessary services, or simply direct the client to the appropriate agency or organization. Case managers also work closely with VA hospitals, helping maintain continuity of care throughout a patient’s admission, treatment, and discharge processes.
Social workers have long played a role in the delivery of mental health services, currently accounting for more than 60% of mental health practitioners in the United States. Clinical social workers are trained to address a range of psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues, and can both provide individual and family therapy, as well as facilitate group therapy sessions.
In working with military service members, veterans, and their families, clinical social workers may offer preventative programs, such as family support groups, in addition to addressing crises, stressful circumstances, and ongoing struggles. Clinical social workers may also screen service members for potential risks, including domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide.
Crisis intervention occurs when a preliminary screening, or an acute situation, reveals the need for an immediate treatment plan. Many of these crisis situations arise from the stresses of deployment, experiences of financial hardship, bouts of depression, or from post-traumatic stress.
Up to 20% of veterans meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), a debilitating psychological condition. PTSD may put military personnel and veterans at greater risk for such crisis episodes as depression, self-harm, violent behaviors, and attempted suicide. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) also presents a crisis risk and can cause high-level of stress for families and caregivers.
In a crisis situation, clinical social workers offer the counseling needed to help diffuse the acute issue and often also establish a treatment plan for ongoing intervention. Social workers may also facilitate family therapy or marriage counseling to help maintain the client’s familial support system.
Social workers who work with military populations – whether active, reserves, or veterans – frequently assist with education initiatives, both within the military agencies and the community at-large. These initiatives may help to inform medical care providers and service agencies about problems generally encountered during military service, such as the increased prevalence of TBI among combat veterans, and how to identify risk-factors.
Social workers can also help to educate military personnel and their families, providing information about specific conditions, available services, and helpful programs for coping.
Education ties in very closely with advocacy, as social workers aim to ensure that all agencies that serve military populations have accurate information to enable access to timely and effective care, resources, and services.
Obtaining necessary treatment and services often requires military service members and veterans to engage with large bureaucratic agencies. This can present challenges and require that a social worker advocate on behalf of a client.
Social workers who work with military populations are aware of the resources available to service members and veterans, as well as the protocol involved with obtaining military benefits.
Social workers can also be informed of new realities of war – such as the proliferation of TBIs, and the increased threat of domestic terrorism and the potential use of biological and chemicals weapons – how these realities may affect clients, and what services will be required as a result. For instance, with larger numbers of young women serving in the military, social workers must determine how best to help mothers who may be struggling to care for young children while recovering from service-related injuries or the emotional effects on their children of long absences during deployments.
Veterans and military families remain private citizens, and must often seek out services and safety nets offered in the private sector, even if they receive benefits and services through the Veteran’s Administration. Therefore, social workers, regardless of specialty, will likely serve the military population in some capacity.
Practitioners who are particularly interested in helping military personnel and their families will find that the Charleston metropolitan area, a medical hub, offers many opportunities. Charleston is home to both the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, and the Dorchester Mental Health Center. Both facilities are likely to provide the services described above, and frequently employ clinical social workers; the Veteran’s Administration is the largest employer of clinical social workers within the United States.
The Master of Social Work program offered by the University of South Carolina at the Lowcountry Graduate Center provides the training necessary to serve both military and civilian populations in health and mental health settings. For more information about this program, visit the University of South Carolina’s Master of Social Work page.