Social Workers are Essential

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs
By Carrie McDonnell, LICSW, LCSW-C and Laura Faulconer, MSW, MPA
March 9, 2021

It's March, which means it is time to celebrate! For many the month of March is reserved for St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras, and the spring equinox, but it's also Social Worker Appreciation Month, and that's cause for celebration.

Every year the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) comes up with a theme to celebrate the profession. The theme for 2021 is “Social Workers are Essential,” and, given the year we have had, that could not be more true. Social workers especially are essential in supporting our service members and veterans. Here’s some of the details according to the Military Health System Management Analysis and Reporting Tool:

  • In 2020, there was an average of 1,487 clinical social workers supporting the Department of Defense (DoD), treating mental health or substance-related disorders during the year.
  • DoD clinical social workers had 770,072 encounters with service members or their family members in 2020, addressing a wide range of mental health and substance abuse issues
  • Social workers represent 45 percent of DoD mental health professionals in direct care clinics and see 42 percent of all encounters involving mental health or substance abuse issues.
  • Additionally, more than 15,000 social workers are on staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), making it the largest employer of social workers in the nation

Social workers are not new to the military. In fact, we have a long and proud history in the military, spanning almost 75 years. First commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army in July 1945, social workers have also assisted soldiers during both World War I and II as American Red Cross employees, served in the Persian Gulf, deployed in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have provided services and support to countless active duty members, reservists, veterans, and their family members as they cope with challenges unique to the military.

The services we offer are numerous:

  • Advocacy
  • Benefit assistance
  • Crisis intervention
  • Resource navigation
  • Assessments
  • Outreach
  • Counseling and psychotherapy
  • Research
  • Administrative oversight
  • Psychoeducation
  • Program development
  • Policy development
  • Case management

You can find us providing these services on military bases, embedded with active military units, and as TRICARE providers, and at military hospitals and clinics, the Department of Defense, VA health centers, and other veterans’ services organizations.

While the work setting may vary, the mission of social workers working with military populations remains the same: assist service members in fulfilling professional responsibilities while maintaining healthy personal lives and support veterans transitioning to civilian life.

Service members and their family members face many of the same challenges as civilians, but they also experience stressors unique to the military. Deployment, exposure to trauma, high work demands, risk for serious injury, transitioning back home, reintegration into the civilian world, working and living within the military culture, frequent relocations, and family separation are just a few of these unique stressors. Thus the challenges that military social workers face are also unique. Some of these challenges include secondary trauma (also known as vicarious or indirect trauma), compassion fatigue, possible ethical dilemmas in complying with both local and military mandatory reporting laws, and dual relationships and boundary issues such as clients outranking them or deploying alongside clients.

Considering the vital role social workers play in the military and with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 13 percent increase in social work jobs between 2019 and 2029 (far outpacing the national average for all occupations), social workers are here to stay. So take time this month to thank a social worker and let them know they are essential in supporting the military community's psychological health and the overall mission of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Ms. McDonnell is a contracted social work subject matter expert for clinical care at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She is a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in both direct service and administrative oversight of programs specializing in crisis intervention.

Ms. Faulconer was 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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