Social workers who work in military settings typically have specialized knowledge about how to help military personnel cope with the emotional and physical challenges of their job, such as injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, strained family relationships, and difficulty finding employment after they return from service. Military social workers often work at the micro level to support and counsel military personnel; however, they can also work at the macro level by advocating for better support systems and assistance programs for active military members, veterans, and their families.
Military social workers can work in such settings as military units, the Veteran’s Bureau (an establishment of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs), advocacy organizations, military hospitals, military schools, direct practice organizations, army medical treatment facilities, and private practice.
Individuals who are interested in becoming military social workers should research the different work settings that employ social workers in this field, to get an idea of the skills and knowledge necessary to effectively counsel, support, and advocate for military personnel. Some accredited online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs offer specializations or sub-concentrations specifically in military social work, while others may offer electives or classes that focus on working with members of the military and their families. This article provides detailed information about military social work as a career, and explains the types of online MSW programs that prepare students for working effectively with military personnel.
Careers in Military Social Work
Military social workers can support military personnel before their deployment, during their service, and as they transition back to civilian life. They can also counsel and support veterans, as well as the spouses and children of military personnel. Additionally, social workers in this field can help military personnel and their families navigate the process of applying for financial, health, education, housing, and other benefits.
Military social workers may have different responsibilities, depending on their level of education, licensure, and place of employment. For example, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who specialize in military social work can provide mental health therapy to their clients, including diagnosing certain emotional, psychological, and psychosocial disorders, and developing and implementing mental health treatment plans. Non-clinical military social workers may focus on providing support to their clients before, during, and/or after they fulfill their military service by helping them find resources in their community and through the government, connecting them to support services, and helping them set goals and manage their relationships. Military social workers can also work at the macro level to advocate for better support and services for service men and women.
The Knowledge and Skills Required to Become a Military Social Worker
In general, social workers who work in military settings need to have a strong knowledge of:
- The mental, physical, and emotional issues that military personnel, veterans, and their families commonly face, including the causes and symptoms of these issues and the potential ways to address them.
- Military culture and how it impacts military members and their families.
- The resources (ex. employment services, education benefits, health insurance benefits) that are available to military personnel, their spouses, and children, and how to help these individuals find and use these resources.
- The typical progression and phases of an individual’s military career, and the common circumstances and challenges that an individual faces at each stage in this progression.
- Implementing crisis interventions when the need arises.
- How to counsel and support aging veterans, and help them find resources within their community.
- How to address substance abuse and other negative behavioral consequences that result from the mental, emotional, and physical strains of military service.
Prospective military social workers should note that, while an MSW may not be strictly required for non-clinical social workers in this field, many employers of military social workers (such as the U.S. Army and the Veteran’s Bureau) either require or prefer applicants to have an MSW from an institution that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
Accredited Online MSW Programs with a Concentration in Military Social Work
Students should note that they do not necessarily need to complete an MSW program with a concentration in military social work in order to work in this field. However, programs that offer a military social work concentration include classes that focus on the specific challenges that military personnel face, and are also designed to prepare social workers for the culture, environments, and particular social issues that military personnel encounter. This specialized education in military social work may be advantageous for students as military members can encounter very challenging physical and emotional circumstances, and may wish to work specifically with social workers who understand their background and situation.
- University of Southern California’s Online MSW Program offers a sub-concentration in Military Social Work, which students can add onto any concentration they select within the program. To complete the sub-concentration, students must complete the following courses: Clinical Practice with the Military Family: Understanding and Intervening, Military Culture and the Workplace Environment, and Clinical Practice with Service Members and Veterans. They may also fulfill part of their field placement by working with military personnel and veterans in a variety of approved agency settings.
- University of Louisville’s Online MSSW Program offers a specialization in Military Social Work that focuses on providing students with a theoretical, social, and political understanding of the challenges veterans face before, during, and after their terms of service. The program also aims to train students to help clients address these challenges through effective interventions and programming. Students have the option to complete an advanced clinical rotation at an approved agency setting that serves current and/or former military personnel. Students must formally apply to this concentration, and the admissions process is selective.
While USC and UofL offer distinct concentrations/sub-concentrations in military social work, other online MSW programs do offer electives or coursework in this field. Students who are interested in working with military personnel should check with programs that interest them to see if they offer electives in military social work.
Curriculum and Field Education Details for Online MSW Programs with a Military Social Work Concentration
Accredited online MSW programs with a concentration or sub-concentration in military social work are typically comprised of the same number of units as regular online MSW programs (about 60 units). These programs contain both foundation level and concentration or advanced standing coursework. Students typically complete their foundation level courses first, and then progress to their advanced classes; however, some students may have terms during which they take both foundation and advanced standing courses.
Foundation level social work courses for online MSW programs generally cover topics such as Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Social Work Practice with Individuals, Groups, and Families, and Research Methods for Social Workers. Advanced standing courses for online MSW programs with a concentration in military social work may include Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Military Culture and Environment, Clinical Social Work Practice with Military Members and Veterans, and Marital Issues Within the Military Family.
Field education requirements for online MSW programs with a concentration in military social work tend to be similar to those of clinical social work MSW programs. Students who decide to pursue a concentration in military social work should work with their program’s field education office and/or field coordinator to determine agency sites that will allow them to interact with military personnel and/or veterans, as well as their families. Such settings could include military-affiliated schools, substance abuse clinics, retirement communities, military community and support centers, and advocacy organizations.
Every MSW program has its own protocol for determining students’ agency sites and field instructors–for example, while some schools actively match students to agency locations, other MSW programs expect students to find their own placement sites. Students should check with the schools of social work that interest them for details on how these schools determine field placements.
Example Coursework for Online MSW Programs with a Military Social Work Concentration
Course titles and content may vary across programs; however, courses that students might take in an accredited online MSW program with a concentration in military social work may include:
- Understanding and Supporting Military Families: How military culture and the responsibilities of military personnel affect family dynamics. Military family policies, interactions, and challenges are discussed from a theoretical, research-based, and practical perspective to give students insight into how they can effectively develop and implement interventions and support different members within the military family unit.
- Culture and Environment in Military Settings: The expectations, responsibilities, and culture of the military, and how it has evolved over the past few decades. Recent issues that military operations and personnel have experienced both on and off-duty. How military culture affects service members on a professional, psychological, and social level, and how social workers can bring this understanding of military culture to their work with military personnel and their families.
- Clinical Social Work Practice with Military Personnel and Veterans: The general military life course, from training and deployment to active duty and retirement, and the mental, physical, and social issues that service personnel can encounter during each phase of their development. Students learn about core clinical practices to help them identify and help clients address issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, strained family relationships, substance abuse, and financial hardship.
- Mental Health Counseling for Adults: The core principles and practices of effective mental health counseling for adults, including taking accurate and thorough mental health assessments, guiding clients through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other therapeutic interventions, and coordinating an effective mental health care plan with clients and their families.
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse: Substance abuse and how it affects military personnel and their families. The different therapeutic interventions commonly used to help individuals suffering from substance abuse, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and lifestyle changes.