Elevating Social Work in the Military

A licensed clinical social worker
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fowler
By Laura Faulconer, MSW, MPA
March 11, 2019

When you think of the month of March, you likely think of St. Patrick’s Day or maybe Mardi Gras, or even the spring equinox. But, did you know that March is also Social Worker Appreciation Month? The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 2019 theme is “Elevate Social Work,” which encourages us to educate the public about the invaluable contributions of the profession.   

Social workers play a unique and important role in providing care and support to military personnel and their families. Social workers were first commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army in July 1945, although they assisted soldiers during both World War I and II as American Red Cross employees. Today, more than 2,100 clinical social workers support the Department of Defense, conducting suicide and behavioral health assessments, providing evidence-based psychological health treatment, delivering case management services, advocating for service members and their families, conducting research, writing policies and administering programs. According to Military Health System Management Analysis and Reporting Tool data, approximately 1,301,273 behavioral health encounters were conducted by social workers in 2018 – more than any other behavioral health profession!

Clinical social workers are trained to focus first and foremost on a person’s strengths and successes; thus we are well suited to support service members and their families. But working in military settings can also have unique challenges. Social workers must be knowledgeable about and comply with both local and military mandatory reporting laws; practice within the limits of their education, training, and areas of expertise; and adhere to the NASW Code of Ethics.

Social workers must also understand the provisions in the Military Rules of Evidence regarding client confidentiality and privilege in the event they are subpoenaed to testify in cases that arise under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And, as Frederic Reamer, Ph.D., discusses in Eye on Ethics, there are unique boundary and “two-hatted” or dual relationship challenges for social workers who practice in military settings.  For example, active duty military social workers must anticipate the possibility that their clients will outrank them, and social workers who are embedded with soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen must understand and be skilled at managing complicated boundary, confidentiality, and privacy issues.

To learn more about the unique role of social workers across the services, check out the following articles:

Current social workers can visit the Psychological Health Center of Excellence website to learn more about prevention, screening, and treatment of specific psychological health conditions and find numerous clinical support tools to assist in providing evidence-based care.

In honor of Social Worker Appreciation Month, we thank all social workers supporting service members and their families to enhance the psychological health of the military community. 

Ms. Faulconer is a contracted social worker subject matter expert on the evidence-based practice team at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She has a master of social work and a master of public administration.

The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.

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