We Have Much to Offer Veterans

By James J.Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSW

One-fifth of the United States population, or roughly 61 million people, is made up of veterans and their families. It is a special group with extraordinary challenges that continues to grow and which will have an increasing need for social work services in the coming years.

Social workers have been serving veterans since 1926, when the first social work program in the Veterans Bureau was established. Social work involvement began with patients with psychiatric issues and tuberculosis and has expanded today to offer a variety of services to veterans and their families including resource navigation, crisis intervention, advocacy, benefit assistance, and mental health therapy for conditions such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and drug and alcohol addiction. The Department of Veterans Affairs also depends on social workers to ensure continuity of care through the admission, evaluation, treatment, and follow-up processes and is the largest employer of social workers in the nation with social workers serving in every VA Medical Center, Vet Center, and in many community-based clinics.

There are currently 23.6 million veterans in the United States, 1.8 million of which are female. There are approximately 37 million spouses and dependent children of living and deceased veterans. Together, they represent 20 percent of the U.S. population. Social workers are going to assist many of them including the 9.3 million veterans who are over the age of 65 and will experience challenges not only related to their service but also to their age. They will also work with the 6 million veterans who are dealing with a disability and 5.7 percent who are living in poverty.

Although veterans comprise just 11 percent of the general population, due to complex factors often including mental illness, they comprise 23 percent of the homeless population. Over 33 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have received care from the Department of Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with mental health or psychosocial illness. PTSD, an anxiety disorder resulting from witnessing a traumatic event, was the most common disorder, often leading to depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other physical and mental health issues. The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for PTSD has risen almost 70 percent, and the total number of mental health cases among war veterans grew by 58 percent. Veterans are seeking treatment for mental health disorders due to the changing face of treatment as well as the growing acceptance of these “invisible” wounds such as PTSD. Social workers are the primary workforce tasked with serving them.

Due to the new ways in which military intervention and combat is waged, often demanding multiple tours of duty, and the resultant effects on veterans and their families, NASW is taking a renewed look at these outcomes and determining the role that our professional organization will play in the coming years. Our nation will feel the repercussions of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom for generations, and we must ensure that those who serve our country can expect competent care and support once they arrive home.

NASW is committed to renewed advocacy to achieve this goal. One important step we are taking is through our endorsement of Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization dedicated to recruiting mental health professionals to give one hour of their time each week to provide therapy to veterans and their families. We are asking members who are licensed clinical social workers to donate one hour per week to counsel a veteran or military family member. For more information about this organization, or to volunteer your time to this important cause, please visit www.giveanhour.org.

One of the many things I learned in my years working at a VA hospital in the 1970s and ‘80s was the consequence of sacrifice in wartime. I was privileged to serve Vietnam veterans. I would like to thank my fellow social workers as they quietly (or loudly, as the case warrants) go about their jobs trying to repair the emotional and social damage to clients and their families. We have much to offer and much to do for those who risk everything in service to our nation.