New Focus on Military Social Work

The School of Social Work program, the first of its kind at a major research university, garners $3.3 million in government funding.
By Cynthia Monticue
Clinical associate professor Jose Coll, left, and Vice Dean Paul Maiden, right, consult with Lt. Colonel Jeff Yarvis of the U.S. Army.

Photo/Brian Goodman
The USC School of Social Work has created a specialization in military social work and veteran services to prepare social workers and other trained mental health professionals to help the nation’s armed forces personnel, military veterans and their families manage the pressures of military life and postwar adjustments.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) secured $3.3 million in funding for the program.

“By training social workers who are uniquely attuned to military life and the needs of returning veterans, USC’s military social work program will fill a void in the care we provide armed forces personnel,” she said. “Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have bravely served our country, and now it is our responsibility to step up and serve them.”

The military social work program, to hold its first classes next fall, will be housed in the new USC San Marcos Academic Center in north San Diego County, down the road from Camp Pendleton, where 60,000 military and civilian personnel work every day.

“The country doesn’t have sufficient resources to respond to the current health and mental health needs of our returning soldiers, so the immediate training of professionals is critical,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work. “Our program will prepare professionals to help our service members deal with the impact of battlefield conditions and anticipate their emotional needs upon returning to civilian life.”

A 2007 report issued by the American Psychological Association’s Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment Services for Youth, Families and Service Members found a severe shortage of social workers and other mental health professionals trained in the nuances of military life and that those who are highly qualified often experience burnout due to the demands placed on them.

The USC program, which Flynn said is the first military social work program in the country at a major research university, will be available as a specialized area of study for master of social work students and as a postgraduate certificate for individuals with significant clinical social work practice experience.

The specialization also will be offered to students enrolled in the school’s nurse social work practitioner option, a program for registered nurses with bachelor of nursing degrees who are pursuing a master’s degree in social work and a case management certificate.

Beyond the foundation course requirements of the MSW degree, students will take a series of highly specialized classes emphasizing the military as a workplace culture, the management of trauma and post-traumatic stress, clinical practice with the military family, and preventative care and health management in military settings.

Students will round out their training with electives on disabilities and family caregiving; domestic violence; loss, grief and bereavement; spirituality; and substance abuse and other addictive disorders.

Also part of the curriculum: visits to military installations and veterans facilities, a base family services unit, a military correctional facility, and a veterans center or Veterans Affairs department. Graduates with military social work training will be able to immediately fulfill a variety of responsibilities, including the counseling of deploying or returning soldiers; helping individuals cope with post-traumatic stress and disabilities; enhancing life skills related to parenting, stress management, conflict resolution and suicide prevention; and connecting military families with vital community resources such as child care, transportation and finances.

In the field, social workers can help soldiers maintain the morale of combat units and more effectively cope with traumatic battlefield experiences.

More than 20 national and community advisers with specific military experience, ranging from active and retired armed forces personnel to clinical social workers and educators, helped develop the curriculum. Directing the program is clinical associate professor Jose Coll, a Marine Corps veteran who went to school with the aid of the G.I. bill and authored the recent book, A Civilian Counselor’s Primer for Counseling Veterans.

The School of Social Work is collaborating with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies to use some of its immersive technologies to train social workers and treat patients. In related research, the institute has created virtual patients to aid clinicians in their interviewing and diagnostic skills. The institute also developed a virtual reality exposure therapy to treat soldiers and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“We began the military social work program as a response to the rapidly growing demand for trained social workers who can address the mental health needs of returning war fighters,” said Paul Maiden, vice dean of the USC School of Social Work. “Our intent is to help facilitate healthy reintegration into their families, workplace and communities.”