Current and past members of the United States military make up a significant proportion of the population. More than 22 million Americans are either active military, reserve members, or veterans. This group has its own unique challenges and issues that are well understood in the mental health and helping professions and serving this population will require an increasing number of social workers who specialize in military and veterans’ social work.
The scope of this work is very broad. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work services include mental and behavioral health services, medical health services, social support, case management, care coordination, children and family services, administration, and advocacy. In a military setting, these services may be provided to service members in all branches and veterans from all eras and conflicts, as well as to their family members and loved ones.
Catering to this varied population requires not only a general background in social work, but also specialized knowledge and skill sets particular to military needs, issues, and regulations. This education can be obtained from a program such as Ohio University’s online master’s in social work, which can prepare candidates for success across the spectrum of military-oriented careers in social work.
In working with the military community, a social worker’s first duty is to understand and appreciate the challenges facing this group. Blue Star Families, an organization that supports active military personnel and their family members, does an annual survey to determine the issues of greatest concern. According to the most recent survey, top reported problems include:
- Employment or work stress. This was the top issue, with 66% of active-duty military personnel and 60% of military spouses experiencing trouble in this area.
- 50% of active personnel and 60% of spouses struggled with this aspect of military life.
- Financial issues. 56% of personnel and 57% of spouses worried about money.
- Relocation issues. 49% of personnel and 54% of spouses felt significant stress from adjusting to frequent moves, overseas living, and other aspects of relocation.
- Isolation from family and friends/separation from spouse. These issues were more burdensome for spouses, presumably because active personnel found companionship within their companies that their spouses lacked. More than 50% of military spouses reported feelings of isolation and separation.
For veterans, the issues are different and tend to revolve around returning and adjusting to civilian life. During military service, personnel are supported in many ways that they become accustomed to, but must navigate on their own in their post-military life. According to U.S. Veterans Magazine, common challenges include:
- Reconnecting with family and re-establishing a role in the family
- Joining or creating a social community
- Preparing to enter the workforce or returning to a job
- Creating life structure, or learning to live in a more flexible manner than allowed in the military
- Adjusting to providing one’s own basic necessities such as clothing, food, and housing
- Adjusting to a different pace of life and work
- Finding and establishing necessary services, such as medical, dental, and banking
In addition to these everyday issues, veterans also face a host of mental health issues stemming from their time in the service. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common among the veteran population — and these problems can create many others, such as family discord, divorce, social dysfunction, substance abuse, employment difficulty, physical health difficulties, and legal problems, among others. Social workers may be called upon to help with any of these issues.
The Role of the Social Worker
Although social workers anywhere may find themselves helping active military personnel and veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is by far the largest organization serving this population. The VA employs more than 8,000 master’s-level social workers to help the military population. These professionals undertake a huge range of interventions, depending on the characteristics and needs of the populations they serve. According to the VA, a partial list of tasks might include:
- Helping to obtain financial or housing assistance
- Obtaining help from community agencies, such as Meals on Wheels
- Applying for benefits from the VA, Social Security, and other government and community programs
- Assisting with acute or chronic medical conditions, dying patients, and bereaved families
- Providing counseling to ease marriage or family problems, or for life transition issues such as bereavement
- Helping someone move into an assisted living facility, a board-and-care home, or a nursing home
- Helping to address problems with drinking or drug use
- Addressing mental health issues such as sadness, depression, anxiety, or PTSD
- Talking with a client about everyday stressors
Specialized Skill Sets
In addition to these general types of assistance, military social workers need a specialized skill set to serve their constituents. The NASW lays out some military-specific tasks, including:
- Understanding benefits and services available to service members, veterans, and their families as well as how to access them
- Learning about the specific physical, mental health, and psychosocial issues facing service members, veterans, and their families
- Understanding military communication norms, styles, and terminology
- Understanding the elements and complexities of U.S. military culture
- Recognizing the possibility for discrimination or prejudice toward clients on the basis of their military service
- Understanding the military discharge system and the impact that discharge will have on services and resources available
- Understanding and adhering to applicable laws and regulations applying to military personnel, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)
Armed with this type of knowledge, social workers can provide the best possible advice and help to their clients. By doing so, they can make a huge, positive difference in their clients’ lives.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work
Ohio University’s online Master in Social Work degree program prepares graduates for careers in social work. Graduates help military personnel, veterans, and other populations to handle life’s challenges in areas that include mental health and trauma counseling, societal readjustment, marriage and family therapy, crisis counseling, and human resources.
The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission. For more information, contact Ohio University now.
Number of active military, reserve, and veterans – Pew Research Center
Scope of military social work – National Association of Social Workers
Challenges of active military personnel and families – The Fiscal Times
Veterans readjustment challenges – U.S. Veterans Magazine
Mental health challenges – Psychology Today
The role of the social worker – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Specialized skill sets – National Association of Social Workers