Congressional Briefing Focuses on Social Work with Military and Families

Nov 8, 2012


Elizabeth Hoffler, Special Assistant to the CEO of NASW,

On Wednesday, November 7, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus hosted a briefing in the Rayburn Building exploring the broad dimensions of social work with members of the military and their families.  Moderated by Elizabeth Hoffler, Special Assistant to the CEO of NASW, the briefing explored issues related to education, veterans’ affairs, women in the military and public health.  The central theme that emerged from the forum is that the sacrifice of military personnel and their families is broader than commonly recognized.Dr. Jo Ann R. Coe Regan, an Accreditation Specialist with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) opened the session by describing her experiences as a military social worker and the spouse of a military officer.  She reported that there are currently 14 accredited MSW programs with a field of practice in military social work and a total of 29 programs with some content related to working with the military.

Dr. Regan reported there were 623 students with field placements in a military-related setting and that the numbers are expected to grow.  In addition, 13 programs have received grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the Department of the Health and Human Services (HHS) to fund field placements and provide certificate training in military social work.  She said several sessions during CSWE’s Annual Program Meeting in Washington, DC November 9th through the 12th, focus on military social work.

Deborah Amdur, Chief Consultant Care Management and Social Work Services in the Office of Patient Care Service at the Veterans Health Administration reported the VA trains 1,000 social workers annually.  She said the VA employs 10,000 social workers making it the largest single employer of social workers and that many of those employed began as interns as she did.  She stated that 41 percent the social workers currently employed by the VA were hired within the past four years, evidence of a growing demand for social workers to work with veterans.

Ms. Amdur stated the VA relies on social workers to help address the social and mental problems of veterans and that the military is developing a greater appreciation of the value of social work skills which has led to joint training with the Department of Defense.  The VA offers 40 hours of continuing education units (CEUs) annually and active duty members of the National Guard can receive supervision to complete their social work education.  Among the challenges for the VA, Ms. Amdur stated, was adjusting its culture to the increasing number of women in the military.

Dr. Jeffrey Yarvis, Deputy Commander and Vice President for Behavioral Health at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital spoke of a call to action for social work in addressing the pressing needs of military personnel and their families.  He spoke of the need for more research and the need to educate military leadership about the value of social work.  Dr. Jarvis stated that there was a conflict between the warrior ethos of the military and seeking help which is often seen as weakness.  He said soldiers who were wounded mentally as well as those wounded physically often viewed the inability to complete their duties as failure.  He said this is sometimes complicated by officers who push their troops to go the extra mile.

Dr. Yarvis also discussed the transmission of trauma—that the traumatic experiences of soldiers are often transferred to children and family members.  For that reason, a school-based mental health program was implemented that identified 26 at-risk families.  He said unlike mental injuries, physical injuries are visual and universally engender sympathy and support.  He said when person is missing a limb people can see the injury but cannot see injuries to the brain.  He said people are not aware that the sacrifices made by military personnel are broad.

The next speaker Col. Ann McCulliss Johnson is Reserve Social Work Consultant to the Army Surgeon General who helps reservists re-acculturate after deployment and develops programs and services for families of reservists.  She stated that the military is increasingly becoming aware of the needs of service members in the National Guard and the Reserves who have had more exposure to combat during the last ten years.  In addition, she reminded the audience that the National Guard is often on the front lines in responding to disasters.  She said while 60 percent of the military’s resources are in the Reserves, reservists do not have access to military facilities when not on active duty.

Rear Admiral Peter Delany, Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), noted that substance abuse is often overlooked when addressing the psycho-social needs of military personnel and their families.  Dr. Delany said abuse of substances is viewed generally by the public as something people can choose to control.  He says it is an added stigma for those with mental health problems seeking help.     He concluded by expressing the need for more social workers with a certification in substance abuse and more practice-based research.  Dr. Delany would like to see more social workers the field of public health.

Dr. Elizabeth J. Clark, Chief Executive Officer of NASW closed the program by stating the organization’s commitment to military social work through training and enhancing opportunities for certification.