For many social workers employed in the private sector or working for a nonprofit, the thought of working outside these service areas may never have crossed their minds. Yet for those open to change, wanting to serve the public and looking for a professional work environment with excellent benefits that supports work/life balance, a position in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps could be a perfect fit.
"I hadn't heard about the Corps when I was in school," says Kelley Smith, who has a master's degree in social work. She joined the Corps in January 2008 and holds the rank of lieutenant. "Later, when I did hear about it, people described it as being a 'best-kept secret.' Now that I am in the Corps, I completely agree — it offers so much opportunity and the benefits are tremendous. Mental health professionals and the public in general should know more about the role the Corps plays in U.S. public health."
What is the Corps?
Led by the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is comprised of more than 6,000 health and mental health professionals who fill public health leadership and service roles, including clinical social work services, within the nation's federal government agencies and programs.
Specifically, members of the U.S. Public Health Service all commissions and work alongside civilian colleagues across a variety of agencies. Corps members working in mental health serve in a number of ways: treating patients in underserved and disadvantaged areas; responding to natural disasters in the U.S.; educating communities about mental health; or working in health administration, or within a particular specialty.
In contrast to many businesses and organizations that are reducing health, retirement and other benefits offered to their employees, the Corps offers members comprehensive benefits ranging from 30 days' paid vacation and paid health and dental insurance coverage to tax-free housing and meal allowances, paid moving expenses and more.
The Corps also offers excellent retirement savings plans similar to a corporate 401(k) and, after 20 years of service, members are eligible to begin receiving retirement benefits.
200 mental health professionals needed
In June 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services announced an agreement between the Department of Defense and the Corps to increase mental health services available to troops returning from overseas missions, their family members and military retirees. Two hundred mental health officers, including licensed clinical social workers, are being recruited to serve in various military treatment facilities within the U.S. for three years. After that, extensions to remain in a particular assignment are negotiated between the Corps and the DoD.
"This is an unprecedented opportunity to join the Corps and work collaboratively with the military," says NASW member Rear Admiral Peter Delany, Ph.D., a member of the U.S. Public Health Services Corps who is conducting outreach to encourage applications to the program.
"Many troops returning from armed conflicts are dealing with various social, health and mental health issues including reintegrating with their families after long absences, economic challenges, severe physical injuries, substance abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder," he added. "This initiative offers mental health professionals an opportunity to ... apply their expertise to care for these heroes and their families."
Comprehensive application, training proces
The formal requirements for the Corps state that an applicant state must be a U.S. citizen; under age 44; medically qualified; have a current, unrestricted professional license and have a qualifying degree or a higher degree from an accredited institution.
As commissioned officers, Corps members wear uniforms similar to other sea services and follow military protocol. Though some officers do elect to serve in overseas posts including humanitarian missions with the Navy, officers are primarily deployed within the United States in response to public health emergencies. Recently, members have been assigned to work in military treatment facilities alongside fellow military medical staff.
Delany says the Corps is looking for mature individuals with good judgment who can be comfortable working in a military environment.
Although experience working with individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder is helpful, it is not required.
Smith fit the formal requirements and also had the personal traits needed to do the job. But when she decided to go through the application process, she still had many questions.
"Because I was a civilian, I wondered what it would be like to wear a uniform and if I would get used to that, as well as following all the military protocols," she acknowledges. "I also wanted to clearly understand what deployment meant. Once I found out more about it, I felt like it would be the right fit for me."
When Smith applied, she explains, there was a lot of paperwork she needed to complete related primarily to medical evaluations, security and work history.
However, as with all applicants, a Corps member was assigned to her to assist with this part of the application process.
Once an individual becomes a Corps member, he or she is offered extensive training, including a two-week officer training course that covers military etiquette and courtesies.
After training is complete, Corps officers are deployed to a federal agency in need of their expertise. Additional site-specific training continues after the Corps officer has been deployed.
Many different ways to serve
Through the DoD initiative, Corps officers are placed in a number of military treatment facilities across the country. To get a better feel for what specific mental health positions might be like, here is how a team of Corps members serving at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas, currently work together:
One officer is assigned to the facility's Family Advocacy Treatment Program and provides individual and group therapy. Another serves as the Medical Social Work Officer at the Women's Health Clinic, providing a variety of clinical services to expectant mothers and their families. The third social worker is the officer in charge of Medical Social Work and oversees inpatient and outpatient social work services at the hospital while also providing direct patient care.
"It's important to know that Corps members often work with families, not just soldiers themselves," Delany says. "There are programs related both to resiliency and preparing troops for going overseas, as well as working with them after they come home. However, the families also have to make major adjustments and are in need of behavioral health services."
Supportive, welcoming environment
What most impressed Smith was how enthusiastically she was welcomed after she joined the Corps. Unlike the stereotype that depicts uniformed services as having a closed environment where individuals must prove themselves before being accepted into the ranks, the Corps is welcoming and supportive, both on a formal and informal basis.
"People are accessible here and extremely helpful," she says. "Also, mentorship is big in the Corps — you can tell them how you are hoping to chart your career, and they can match you with a mentor who has knowledge about your specific area, and can give you support and advice."
After an officer working under the DoD initiative has completed the initial three years of service, he or she may choose to work within the same agency or program, or decide to transfer.
If they wish, Corps officers may move as frequently as every two years in order to take advantage of career opportunities.
Corps members also are prepared to serve during and after national public health crises or national emergencies within the United States.
In recent years, Corps officers working in mental health have responded as part of a multidisciplinary team to emergencies such as the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"Corps members may be asked to serve for up to two weeks during a public health emergency," Delany says.
Corps officers receive extensive training to prepare for these events.
"We have to know how to operate within these settings," Smith says.
"So we receive training around disaster preparedness, relief work and understanding the overall federal emergency management system," she explains. "We learn how we fit into that system and how to serve."
A chance to serve: For Smith, the Corps is the perfect fit because it blends her desire to serve the public with her personal drive to excel in her career.
"It is such great opportunity if you want it," she says. "The people I've met are both extremely hard workers and passionate about what they do."
Delany also believes the Commissioned Corps offers a unique opportunity to serve, as well as meet personal and professional goals.
"In the Corps, you serve those in need, and our nation, and most feel a strong pride in that," he says. "At the same time, Commissioned Corps officers can have a rewarding life outside of their career. They are able to take vacations with their families, can save for retirement and their children's college education, receive the health and dental care they need and much more."
For more information: 800-279-1605 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or apply online at U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.