Training Social Workers To Better Serve Military Clients

October 28, 2008

The increasing demand for professionals to deal with veterans who are suffering from PTSD has placed a strain, not only on military mental health providers, but also on civilian mental health providers. Case loads are increasing and they often find that they have a waiting list. In San Diego at the Armed Services YMCA, social workers are finding it difficult to keep up with the number of requests for services that they’re getting. Two years ago, the Social Work staff dealt with about 16 cases each. Now, each of the 5 Social Workers are carrying a caseload of around 23.

“As of last year, we now have a wait list, and we’ve never had that before in over 20 years of service,” said Amanda Cross, senior program director of family outreach.1

Caseloads in the military healthcare system are also seeing an increase in requests for services. So much so, that they often have to refer to civilian agencies. Many civilian agencies are also seeing an increase in their caseloads, as Soldiers and their families are seeking help outside of the military healthcare system. Many of the therapists with the civilian agencies aren’t aware of the special issues that come along with being in the military.

Recognizing that, the University of Southern California is launching a new program. One that will train therapists and teach them to work with the difficulties faced by military families. The School of Social Work at USC will begin next fall to offer a military specialization within the two year Master’s program in social work.

“There’s been a lot of problems with post-traumatic stress disorder and other kinds of problems unique to returning service members. Currently, there is a very limited supply of people who are educated and prepared to deal with those unique problems, according to Marilyn Flynn, the School of Social Work’s dean. The Army has also recently contracted with Fayetteville State University, in North Carolina, to create a social work master’s program at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio. The military track at USC however, is the first of it’s kind at a civilian university. 2

“On average, mental health practioners are 20 years behind clinical trials, so it’s important to do this at a research institution,” Flynn said.

About two years ago, Flynn was reading about the increasing numbers of mental health problems among returning military veterans. That’s when she had the idea to create the military track at the School of Social Work. According to USC officials, approximately 30% of service members returning from combat, are expected to seek mental health care. The suicide rate in the Army has grown to it’s highest, since they began tracking that data.

Having the military track in the school, should help the Social Workers to better understand the unique problems faced by military members and their families. Those needs clearly reach beyond what is normally taught to social workers, according to Jose Coll, a social workers and former Marine. Coll will be chairing the new program at USC.

“What we hear all the time is, ‘They didn’t understand me,’” he said.3

The stressors that repeated deployments can place on a Soldier and their family, is something that many civilian Social Workers don’t understand. They typically haven’t been taught. Another thing that can add to the treatment difficulties is the lack of understanding of the military as a whole, the acronyms used and specific issues military families face. If the therapist can’t understand the client, due to the jargon they use, it can hamper the ability to build a trusting relationship. That can cause the client to not come back, even though they may sorely need the help.

The program at USC will focus on various aspects of the military. They will teach military related material in traditional social work classes. They’ll teach about self-image and how it relates to dealing with the devastating injuries that often are a result of combat, as well as loss, grief and bereavement. They also plan to add classes on dealing with PTSD and teach the students about the military hierarchy. All things that civilians with no exposure to the military might not know.

Students in the program will be required to complete a 600 hour internship at places where they are more likely to encounter military members or veterans. Some places that the internships will be done are the drop in veteran centers as well as the jail at Camp Pendleton. Instead of typical role-playing, the program will take advantage research from other parts of the university, such as virtual humans.

Military social work students will be able to deal with “Sgt. Justina” who was initially developed to be a civilian teenager who had been sexually assaulted. The plan is to dress Justina in ACUs and adapt her to display military related mental health issues.

“We’re going to target sexual assaults, PTSD and depression,” said Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist, who is a research scientist at the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC. “Eventually researchers hope to create a libraty of 50-100 characters for social workers.

Workers at the San Diego Armed Forces YMCA are excited about the new program and can’t wait to be able to utilize their graduating students.

“We used to do a lot of on-the-spot crisis intervention, where they were out of food, or they had parenting issues,” said Ms. Cross. “Now we’re seeing a lot of families dealing with anxiety, depression. There’s an increase of the actual clinical acuity of cases … We have to look for more skilled clinicians.”4

This sounds like a great program and one that will be beneficial to our Troops and Veterans. I would hope that more colleges across the nation, especially those near military installations, would replicate this program and offer more military-specific courses to their Social Work students. If the Social Workers coming out of this program are able to better understand military specific issues, then our Troops, our Veterans and their family members will be much better served.

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6 Responses to “Training Social Workers To Better Serve Military Clients”

  1. Toby Nunn on October 28th, 2008 1:12 pm

    This is great news! I am so happy that Veterans and Military members are being recognized as an important “social” issue that we are seeing this advancement in training!

  2. Terri on October 28th, 2008 3:20 pm

    I totally agree Toby. I’m hoping it’ll happen in more schools than just USC. I’d love to see better trained Social Workers in this area so that they can better serve the large military and veteran population we have here.

  3. Stand-To!- 16th Annual Conference of European Armies- Oct. 30, 2008 - Freemason Hirams Travels Masonic Forums on October 31st, 2008 10:59 am

    [...] Afghanistan: Troops face wall of silence from terrified villagers (LDT | Story) WHAT’S BEING SAID IN BLOGS Training social workers to better serve military clients (SM) [...]

  4. Riley on December 8th, 2008 1:50 pm

    I’m glad to hear this, because I wanted to get into social work, and this is the area that I want to do… I want to work w/ the soldiers. I was wondering if anyone had any information on what school would be a good one to apply to and how I would go about to get trained and what the employment outlook is and such…

  5. Riley on December 8th, 2008 1:53 pm

    My father was in the army and was acually in Saudi Arabia when I was born and he came back w/ ptsd and I came across this site and decided this is what I really want to do.
    = ]
    War really does change our soldiers and they need to cope and I want to work w/ them.

  6. Isaac on December 23rd, 2008 7:46 pm

    I ran across this program while in the education department at Miramar, Air station.
    It is very exciting, and encouraging to have such a ground breaking program with
    a specific focus on military members and their families. I have served in the
    Marine Corps for over 24 years, and I am a war veteran. For too long, those that
    have returned from war, have done so without adequate transition tools.
    I would very much like to be a part of this evolution in social work. I can think
    of no other profession, more rewarding for a former or retired service member.
    I would be honored to serve in this new, specialized field. This gives me tremendous hope, for the future of this nations hero’s.

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