For those enlisted in the U.S. Army and other military branches, the mental and emotional challenges associated with serving extend well beyond the battlefield. Soldiers are at greater risk for behavioral health problems and the issues associated with them, including suicide, substance abuse and marital dysfunction. According to a Pentagon report, the suicide rate among active-duty troops increased last year, and has been steadily increasing for the last five years. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that rates of substance abuse are higher among deployed troops than among civilian populations.
The mental and emotional safety net available to civilians through their social circle isn’t as readily available to active-duty service members who spend prolonged periods away from loved ones under frequently stressful circumstances. As a result, Army social workers are instrumental in enhancing the readiness of service members and ensuring the emotional well-being of both soldiers and their families.
The Role of an Army Social Worker
Social workers employed by the American Red Cross assisted soldiers during both World Wars, but weren’t commissioned as Army officers until July 1945. Today, Army social workers provide a variety of services to active-duty service members and their families, including clinical counseling, crisis intervention and critical event debriefing. Service members rely on military social workers for help dealing with all manner of psychological and emotional disorders, as well as substance abuse issues and family crises. Social workers may also help soldiers prepare for the transition to private sector life and offer mental health therapy for conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition to working directly with service members and their families, a military social worker may participate in or lead research in areas such as pre- and post-deployment resiliency, comprehensive health care, and the transition to civilian life, as well as assist in training medical personnel or consult on policy development.
With so many different areas of focus, military social workers offer many specialized services. Those interested in Army social work can choose to serve in the U.S. Department of Defense Family Advocacy Program, which focuses on strengthening military families and provides services including assistance for new parents and intervention in cases of domestic violence or child abuse. The Army Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Program offers social workers the opportunity to work with soldiers struggling with substance abuse, while others may pursue medical social work at an Army medical treatment facility.
Regardless of which discipline they choose, social workers are vital to the military. According to data compiled by the Military Health System Management Analysis and Reporting Tool, military social workers conducted more than 1.3 million behavioral health encounters in 2018, more than any other behavioral health profession.
Becoming a Social Worker in the Army
Individuals interested in becoming an Army social worker must hold at least a master’s degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited program, such as Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work, and must already be licensed as a social worker in their home state before the Army will hire or commission them. Aspiring social workers will receive Advanced Individual Training (AIT) through the Army Medical Service Corps after they’ve completed basic training. The Army offers additional educational opportunities to its uniformed social workers, including cost-free doctoral education.
Army social workers have the opportunity to focus on patient care.. However, they must be adept at navigating a complex hierarchical and sociopolitical environment.
A Journal of Social Work Education article states that military social workers should understand, among other things, the culture and subcultures of the military, the stages and developmental influences of military training, and the stigma associated with seeking care and the perceived potential of negative career impacts. They should also anticipate that their clients may outrank them in certain situations and, therefore, be capable of managing complicated boundary, confidentiality and privacy issues.
Many career opportunities for individuals with military social work experience exist, both inside and outside the armed forces. They may work at veterans service organizations (VSOs) or military-related agencies, or they may start a private practice. In fact, Army social workers are highly desired candidates for competitive private sector jobs. Those interested in leveraging their military social work experience in private sector employment can take advantage of the Army Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) program, which guarantees a job interview with military-friendly employers looking for experienced veterans.
Learn More About Army Social Work
The challenges that active-duty service members and veterans face can seem overwhelming, and social workers’ support is a lifeline for many. Social workers can help soldiers cope with PTSD, depression and addiction and connect soldiers with child care and employment resources.
The outlook is bright for the social workers of the future. The field is projected to grow by 13% (more than 90,000 new jobs) through 2029, three times faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those interested in pursuing a career in social work, whether in the military or in the private sector, can gain the skills they need through VCU’s online Master of Social Work.