Veterans have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect our country and deserve the best services when they return home. Many have suffered enormous physical and emotional trauma and are considered to be the most at risk population for PTSD, depression, suicide and other mental health issues. The 2014 Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members compared service members to the general population and found that the rate of major depression is five times higher among soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is nearly 15 times as high, and intermittent explosive disorder is six times as high.
According to the Association of VA Social Workers, there are currently more than 12,000 social workers throughout the US Department of Veteran Affairs. The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics reports that between 2014 and 2015, the number of veterans receiving disability benefits increased from 3.9 million to 4.5 million. There continues to be a significant and growing need for social workers to provide services to our veterans, their families, and their communities.
Here are five examples of the role of social workers with veterans:
1. Coping with Injury
Many veterans have endured serious and life changing injuries including loss of limbs and other physical trauma. The task of adjusting to these losses in conjunction with the emotional stress experienced by many servicemen and women, can create enormous difficulties in adjusting back to their families, careers, and civilian life. Social workers are part of the professional team throughout the treatment process, providing individual, couple and group counseling, case management, and ongoing services as the veteran adjusts to his/her new circumstances.
2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Many veterans have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is described by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” Symptoms such as frightening thoughts and angry outbursts usually begin within three months of the incident—or right after veterans return home—and may last months to a lifetime. Getting help from a social worker through support groups or individual and family therapy can help veterans learn positive coping strategies, allowing for a better adjustment home.
3. Getting Acclimated Back to Civilian Life
The realities of returning home, such as finding a job and obtaining housing, can make life challenging for a returning veteran. A social worker can help by connecting the veteran to appropriate resources while providing emotional support throughout the adjustment process.
4. Family Support
Ensuring the successful transition back home requires involvement and support from family members, who may also be experiencing stress with the return of their family member. While the veteran was deployed, the family unit may have adjusted to a new way of life, making the reentry of the veteran difficult for everyone. In addition, the family must adjust and address the physical and emotional changes of the returning veteran to prevent negative outcomes such as domestic violence. The New Social Worker magazine reports 21% of American domestic violence situations include combat veterans. Social workers can provide the clinical services to the veteran and family to help with the adjustment back to the family unit.
5. Mitigating Risk for Substance Use Disorder and related Mental Health Issues
Life changes and stress experienced on the battlefield contribute to an increased risk of substance use disorder and mental health issues. For veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, the risk is even higher, as the US Department of Veterans Affairs reports, more than two out of ten veterans with PTSD have substance use disorder. Veteran use of prescription drugs, alcohol and cigarettes has risen steadily in the past decade and is higher than use by civilians, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A social worker trained to work with substance use in veterans can provide the necessary services to avoid the need for substance use and to refer and treat veterans who are experiencing the negative consequences of substance abuse disorder.
If you're interested in providing clinical and case management services to returning veterans and their families, consider obtaining an online Master of Social Work degree to prepare you for a rewarding career that directly impacts those in your community and beyond.