Hill briefing focuses on social work with service members, veterans and families

Peter Delany, Jeffrey Yarvis, Ann McCulliss JohnsonNASW hosted a Capitol Hill briefing in November to highlight the social work profession’s role in working with veterans, military members and their families.

Rear Adm. Peter Delany, left, with SAMHSA, speaks during a Capitol Hill briefing in November, as Lt. Col. Jeffrey Yarvis, of Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, center; and Col. Ann McCulliss Johnson, Reserve social work consultant to the Army surgeon general, listen. The briefing, “Social Workers Join Forces to Support Service Members, Veterans, and their Families,” was hosted by NASW and the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

NASW held the briefing, “Social Workers Join Forces to Support Service Members, Veterans, and their Families,” in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus. The briefing was a part of NASW’s commitment to the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, which aims to create better health, education and employment support for military families and veterans.

The briefing featured five speakers — all social workers with expertise in this area but who approach it from different viewpoints.

“We wanted a diverse group of speakers with different perspectives on uniformed social work service,” said the session’s moderator, Elizabeth Hoffler, special assistant to NASW CEO Elizabeth J. Clark.

Jo Ann R. Coe Regan, of the Council on Social Work Education, talked not only about educating future social workers on challenges facing the military, but also about being a military spouse.

Deborah Amdur, of the Veterans Health Administration, discussed the changing needs of veterans and how social workers have historically worked to support this population. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Yarvis, of Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, shared the perspective of social work in active duty military, particularly the importance of meeting the mental and behavioral health needs of those who have served.

Col. Ann McCulliss Johnson, Reserve social work consultant to the Army surgeon general, talked about the Reserve’s unique role and what social workers should understand when working with them. And Rear Adm. Peter Delany, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, spoke on merging public health and social work service.

A common point the speakers made is that all social workers need to have a basic understanding about military culture and the opportunities and challenges facing service members and veterans in order to provide them with the best care.

Learning the cultural context of the military is the biggest concern right now for new social workers, Regan said.

She said she melds the professional and personal sides of the issue, as she is a trained social worker who is also the wife of service member and whose father was in the military. She said military culture was never mentioned when she was getting her social work education, but it is now a growing area in education. The profession is also expanding for social workers with a military concentration, she said.

Regan cited the need for more innovative education courses, while recognizing that NASW and many schools of social work are working on this and also developing resource guides.

“I do feel like social workers are really stepping up,” she said, and social work educators are helping to lead the way.

Amdur pointed out that social workers have the necessary skills for this area of work, adding that the VA employs more than 10,000 social workers.

“Forty percent (of our social workers) were hired in the last four years in various areas,” she said, indicating that the VA recognizes the strengths of the profession and the seriousness of the need.

The VA is focused on training social workers to replace those who are retiring, Amdur said. In addition to working with veterans from previous eras and reintegrating troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, social workers help children who have grown up with one or both parents deployed and family members of all ages who care for those who return injured.

“The impact is very broad,” and social workers are a critical piece, she said.

Yarvis said he has a personal and professional mandate to do this work, as a combat veteran, behavioral health specialist and teacher. Some of the concerns today include more women in combat and the sexual trauma that can occur, as well as the increase in traumatic brain injury and suicide among service members and veterans.

“Spouses and children often suffer through all of these issues, too”, he said, “so you have to think about all the different touch points where a social worker might be involved.”

He said the military “ethos needs to be understood” by civilian social workers, and that it is also important to teach social work students about the pathology of war.

As a veteran and Reserve officer, McCullis said Reserves and National Guard members have been used more than ever over the past 10 years. She has gone back to active duty three times to deploy.

“Then I have to come back and figure out where I belong,” she said. “And I can tell you, it’s not been an easy journey.”

“It’s important for community-based social workers to understand what we go through,” she added.

As a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, Delany pointed out the importance of different national health organizations working together and with partners at state levels to support active military members, veterans and their families.

There are 170 officers in 14 national agencies who are social workers, he said, and “we have social workers and practitioners in communities across the country who see veterans every day.”

When working with military members or veterans, social workers often focus on physical and mental health, such as PTSD, TBI and suicide risk, Delany said. But they also need to ask about behavioral issues, such as substance abuse, and how much a person smokes, drinks or uses drugs.

He urged social workers to continue to think about public health as a career option.

Hoffler said the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have renewed the focus of social work with veterans and military families, even though social workers have long worked with veterans from many different eras. She noted that, “This focus is bringing together the social work community, and many allied stakeholders, to work together in a cohesive and collegial way because we owe it to those who have served.”

To help meet this demand, and as part of its commitment to The White House Joining Forces initiative, NASW plans to offer five free online continuing education courses and three credentials focused on social work with service members, veterans, and their families, which should be available this spring. The online CE courses will be free and open to any social workers who wish to expand their knowledge base about military culture, while earning free CE units, Hoffler said.

The online credentials will be more advanced, she said, and will be offered free to NASW members for one year. Individuals who earn the credential will showcase in-depth knowledge, proven work experience, leadership capacity, competence, and dedication in this field of practice at the baccalaureate, advanced master’s, or clinical levels.

NASW also has developed a new set of social work practice standards pertaining to service members, veterans and their families, which are now online and available to download.

“We want to educate all 650,000 social workers and train them to work with those who have served, and their families,” Hoffler said. “We are making available social work-specific content so that every social worker, regardless of practice setting, can easily access resources that will prepare them to do that.”