For those enlisted in the U.S. military, the mental and emotional challenges associated with serving extend well beyond the battlefield. These challenges can have devastating effects. According to a 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the suicide rate among active component service members has gradually risen since 2011. Additionally, a 2020 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — the most recent report, due to the COVID-19 pandemic — revealed that 1.3 million veterans struggled with a substance use disorder.
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, military social workers are instrumental in enhancing the mental readiness of service members and ensuring the emotional well-being of both soldiers and their families. An advanced education can help prepare social workers for the important role of supporting the nation’s military.
What Is a Military Social Worker?
Military social workers help connect active-duty service members and their families with resources designed to improve their mental health and well-being. These can include therapeutic services such as clinical counseling, crisis intervention and critical event debriefing — services that can help individuals cope with all manner of psychological and emotional disorders, as well as substance misuse 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.
In some cases, military social workers may assist military veterans who are struggling to adapt to civilian life by connecting them with services designed to help them find housing and social services.
Regardless of which services they provide, social workers play a vital role in supporting the nation’s active-duty service members and veterans, a reality borne out in the data:
- According to the Military Health System Management Analysis and Reporting Tool, social workers with the DOD had more than 770,000 behavioral health interactions with service members or their families in 2020.
- Social workers represent 45 percent of DOD mental health professionals at military hospitals and clinics, and are involved in 42 percent of all encounters dealing with mental health or substance misuse issues.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the largest employer of social workers in the nation, with more than 15,000 on staff.
Ultimately, the goal of a military social worker is to help veterans and their families achieve and maintain a sense of stability. Considering the stressful conditions military personnel may have to endure, the support of a social worker can have a lasting positive impact on those who serve.
Becoming a Military Social Worker
While each person’s individual career path may differ, a general framework exists for becoming a military social worker. Those interested in this career should become familiar with these steps prior to embarking on the journey.
1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Obtaining a Bachelor of Social Work degree allows individuals to build a foundational knowledge of social work and related concepts, such as a study of social welfare policy, ethics, diverse populations and human behaviors. This also allows students to start developing the essential skills that will serve them well throughout their career.
2: Earn a Master’s Degree
While a bachelor’s degree can qualify candidates for entry-level social work positions, advanced or specialized roles may require advanced education. Military social workers generally need a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, such as Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work online format. A master’s program can deepen an aspiring military social worker’s knowledge and skills, preparing them to identify and resolve the unique, complex issues that arise in guiding military personnel.
3: Gain Appropriate Field Experience
Obtaining experience is essential before applying for a military social work role. This can be achieved through internship opportunities such as engaging in supervised clinical work. However, this experience isn’t merely about meeting requirements for work hours. Ideally, interns should strive to ensure their field experience is relevant to some sort of military capacity.
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 be high-ranking officers and, therefore, be capable of managing complicated boundary, confidentiality and privacy issues. Gaining field experience through organizations that serve veterans and their families, for instance, can help an individual become acclimated to such environments and situations.
4: Apply for Licensure
Prospective military social workers must already be licensed as social workers in their home state before they can begin practicing. The process of obtaining a license can vary from state to state. Because of this, individuals should familiarize themselves with the requirements of the state in which they plan to practice.
Military Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook
While it does not provide salary data specifically for military social workers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for a social worker with the federal government was approximately $83,000 in 2021. Several factors can influence the precise amount an individual may earn in the role such as years of experience, work environment and location, as well as whether they’re an active-duty service member.
The BLS projects 9 percent employment growth for the social work profession overall between 2021 and 2031, nearly double the 5 percent job growth rate it projects for the country’s job market as a whole.
Where Do Military Social Workers Work?
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 or military-related agencies, or they may start a private practice of their own.
Military social workers can also pursue roles in the private sector. Those interested in leveraging their military social work experience in private sector employment can take advantage of the Army Partnership for Your Success (PaYS) program, which guarantees a job interview with military-friendly employers looking for experienced veterans.
Key Skills of a Military Social Worker
Interpersonal skills are essential for success as a military social worker. The foundation of the role is built on an individual’s ability to develop a rapport with clients and their families. This rapport fosters a sense of trust, which can be crucial given the nature of the profession. This competency goes hand in hand with the need for solid communication skills, as it’s important to make sure every instruction, direction and piece of information is stated clearly without any room for ambiguity.
Additionally, a military social worker needs strong organizational skills to allow them to effectively manage multiple cases and client care strategies. They must also have strong problem-solving skills to accurately assess a patient’s needs. These skills should be underscored by a sense of compassion, which builds empathy for the people they’re helping.
Serve Those Who Serve Our Country
The challenges that active-duty service members and veterans face can seem overwhelming. The support that social workers provide is a lifeline for many. A military social worker can help service members cope with PTSD, depression and addiction. They can also assist them in the transition to civilian life, connecting them with child care, employment resources, housing opportunities and much more.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format can help prepare you to make a profound difference in the lives of others. The program is designed to help you curate the expertise to help soldiers and their families find the necessary resources to improve their lives and well-being.
Learn how we can prepare you for this rewarding career.